Understanding Fortune and Irony
  • Michele Chiaruzzi
Part of the Palgrave Macmillan History of International Thought book series (PMHIT)


In political studies it is understood that every social action produces unexpected or unintended effects, either positive or negative. Over time, this understanding has yielded a clear definition of the field of social studies: “They are concerned with man’s actions, and their aim is to explain the unintended or undersigned results of the actions of many men.”1 The assumption has also led to a definition of power aimed at isolating it from other kinds of human action and social control: “Power is the capacity of some persons to produce intended and foreseen effect on others.”2 In this sense, it is the coherence of intentions and results that qualifies a social action as an exercise of power. Already in 1936, an American political scientist reminded us that “in some one of its numerous forms, the problem of the unanticipated consequences of purposive action has been treated by virtually every substantial contributor to the long history of social thought.”3


Indifference Curve International Politics Unanticipated Consequence Social Thought Purposive Action 
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  1. 1.
    Friedrich A. Hayek, The Counter Revolution of Science. Studies on the Abuse of Reason (New York: Macmillan, 1964), p. 25.Google Scholar
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    Dennis H. Wrong, Power. Its Forms, Bases, and Uses, 5th printing (New Brunswick, NJ: Transactions, 2009), p. 2. Besides the inevitable, collateral, unintended, and/or unforeseen effects, power produces a particular kind of intended and foreseen effect: it modifies others’ behavior obtaining the desired result; cf. Angelo Panebianco, Il Potere, lo Stato, la Libertà (Bologna: Il Mulino, 2004), p. 39.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Robert K. Merton, “The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action,” American Sociological Review 1, no. 6 (1936): 894. In his Social Theory and Social Structure (Glencoe: Free Press, 1957), p. 68, Merton indicates the study of the unintended consequences of social action as one of the major tasks of the social sciences. Raymond Boudon’s The Unintended Consequences of Social Action (London: Macmillan, 1982) is devoted to this task. On this epistemological connection, see Ray Pawson, “On the Shoulders of Merton: Boudon as the Modern Guardian of Middle-Range Theory,” in Mohamed Cherkaoui and Peter Hamilton, eds., Raymond Boudon: A Life in Sociology, 4 vols. (Oxford, UK: Bardwell, 2009), 4:317–34. Reviewing Boudon’s volume in Social Forces 63, no. 2 (1984): 613, Eric Leifer noted, “This English version of Boudon’s original 1977 book is of uneven quality.” I will use the original one.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Of course, at a more complex level there are “microfoundations” of politics, which lie behind political decisions; cf. Angelo Panebianco, L’Automa e lo Spirito. Azioni Individuali, Istituzioni, Imprese Collettive (Bologna: Il Mulino, 2009).Google Scholar
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    David Collingridge and Colin Reeve, Science Speaks to Power: The Role of Experts in Policy Making (London: Frances Pinter, 1986), p. 32, emphasis added. “Scientism is not scientific method in politics; it is an idealistic attempt to overcome the limitations and uncertainties of politics through an analogy that confuses the genesis, the verification and the application of the theories of the natural sciences”; Bernard Crick, The American Science of Politics. Its Origins and Conditions (Berkley: University of California Press, 1964), p. 224.Google Scholar
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    Obviously, “to see before” means different things for different persons. For someone, it seems to be “the attempt to apply a theory to limn the future” because “prediction is one test of a theory.” For someone else, a good theory of politics “furnishes a model in which future observations and consequences of actions in the outside world can be predicted.” Others think that “theories can also help policy makers anticipate events”; see, respectively, Kenneth Waltz, “International Politics, Viewed from the Ground,” International Security 19, no. 1 (1994): 199; Karl W. Deutsch, “On Political Theory and Political Action,” American Political Science Review 65, no. 1 (1971): 65; and Stephen Walt, “The Relationship between Theory and Policy in International Relations,” Annual Review of Political Science 8 (2005): 31.Google Scholar
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    For a defense of the scientific study of the future, originally elaborated in 1964, see Bertrand de Jouvenel, The Art of Conjuncture, trans. Nikita Lary (Piscataway: Transaction Publisher, 2012).Google Scholar

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© Michele Chiaruzzi 2016

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  • Michele Chiaruzzi

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