Hypotheses of No Relationship

Article 1: Hypotheses of No Relationship

Hypotheses of no relationship exist across the subfields of political science. They typically argue that some previously analyzed variable does not actually matter in the presence of some other variable. To give a very famous example from international relations, a prominent study on the effectiveness of economic sanctions found that when states apply economic sanctions to other states, the targeted state gives in to the sanctioner’s demands 34% of the time (Huffbauer, Schott, & Elliott 1990). By this measure, then, economic sanctions appear to be fairly effective at obtaining the sanctioner’s preferred outcome. This strong of a success rate would justify policymakers’ continued use of sanctions as a tool of statecraft.

Another scholar, though, was not as convinced. Because Huffbauer, Schott, and Elliott had made their dataset publicly available, Robert Pape (1997) was able to re-analyze the data. He argued that sanctions actually had no effect on most of the supposedly successful cases. Instead, the threat or use of military force ultimately caused the target’s concessions. Pape carefully traced the sequence of events in each case that Huffbauer, Schott, and Elliott claimed as a sanctions success. He found that in 18 of the 40 supposed ‘success’ cases, the primary cause of concessions was the threat or use of military force. Sanctions were the primary cause of concessions in only 5 of Huffbauer, Schott, and Elliott’s 40 ‘sanctions success’ cases, suggesting that no relationship existed between sanctions and outcomes.

We can find similar examples in American politics. Pundits and scholars alike initially believed that the Tea Party movement in the United States opposed health care reform for traditional conservative reasons, such as thinking that the free-market health care system was adequate or that the US federal government had no right to intervene. Instead, Williamson, Skocpol, and Coggin (2011) found that Tea Party conservatives opposed health care reform because they felt it unfairly benefited poorer groups in society, which they generally defined in racialized terms, and it siphoned federal funds away from programs such as Social Security and Medicare, to which they felt entitled. When implicitly racial and generational factors enter the analysis, then, more standard threads of US conservative political logic became insignificant.

Finally, in comparative politics, we can consider again the example of whether Islam inhibits democracy. Early, less systematic studies concluded that Islam (particularly social attitudes associated with it) was the major factor deterring the development of democracy in most of the Middle East. Several later studies, however, examined a broader sample of cases and found that Islam was no longer a significant predictor of democracy (Ross 2001, 2008). Instead, oil and natural resource wealth were the primary causes. Social attitudes associated with Islam may contribute, but the political incentives generated by resource revenue, revenue that the state obtains without needing to construct a taxation apparatus, heavily favor the creation and maintenance of autocratic governance systems.


Hufbauer, Gary Clyde, Jeffrey J. Schott, & Kimberly Ann Elliott. 1990. Economic Sanctions Reconsidered. 2nd ed. Washington, DC: Institute for International Economics.

Pape, Robert. 1997. “Why Economic Sanctions Do Not Work.” International Security 22,2: 90-136.

Ross, Michael L. 2001. “Does Oil Hinder Democracy?” World Politics 53,3: 325-61.

Ross, Michael L. 2008. “Oil, Islam, and Women.” American Political Science Review 102,1 : 107-23.

Williamson, Vanessa, Theda Skocpol, and John Coggin. 2011. “The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism.”  Perspectives on Politics 9,1: 25-43.