Sanctions In Political Science Research Paper

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A sanction is an action by one actor (A) intended to affect the behavior of another actor (B) by enhancing or reducing the values available to B. Influence attempts by A using actual or threatened punishments of B are instances of negative sanctions. Influence attempts by A using actual or promised rewards to B are instances of positive sanctions. Not all influence attempts involve sanctions. Actor A may influence actor B by reason, example, or the provision of information without the use of sanctions.

1. Concepts

Although the definitions of positive and negative sanctions may appear simple, there are both conceptual and empirical difficulties in distinguishing between the two. Some things take the form of positive sanctions, but actually are not; e.g., giving a bonus of $100 to an employee who expected a bonus of $500, or promising not to kill a person who never expected to be killed in the first place. Likewise, some things take the form of negative sanctions, but actually are not; e.g., a threat to reduce the salary of a person who expected to be fired or the beating of a masochist.

Is withholding a reward ever a punishment? Always a punishment? Is withholding a punishment ever a reward? Always a reward? The answers depend on Actor B’s perception of the situation. In order to distinguish rewards from punishments one must establish B’s baseline of expectations at the moment A’s influence attempt begins (Blau 1986). This baseline is defined in terms of B’s expected future value position, i.e., expectations about B’s future position relative to the things B values. Positive sanctions, then, are actual or promised improvements in B’s value position relative to B’s baseline of expectations, and negative sanctions are actual or threatened deprivations relative to the same baseline.

2. Historical Context

Although references to both positive and negative sanctions can be traced to the seventeenth century, the most common usage of the term ‘sanctions’ refers to negative sanctions. Until the mid-twentieth century, sanctions were viewed primarily as mechanisms for enforcing societal norms, including those embodied in laws. Although this normative view of sanctions continues in legal theory, ethics, political theory, and sociology (Barry 1995, Coleman 1990, Waldron 1994), a broader usage has emerged in political science during the latter part of the twentieth century. This broader usage depicts sanctions as potentially relevant to any type of influence attempt, regardless of whether it is aimed at enforcing social norms or not. This usage is typically found in discussions of influence and power (Baldwin 1971, 1989, Blau 1986, Oppenheim 1981, Lasswell and Kaplan 1950).

3. Kinds Of Sanctions

Since sanctions are defined in terms of the values of the target of an influence attempt (actor B), they may take a variety of forms. Lasswell and Kaplan (1950) identified eight exemplary values that could serve as the basis for positive or negative sanctions: power, wealth, rectitude, physical well-being, affection, skill, and enlightenment.

Although it is sometimes suggested that positive and negative sanctions are opposites in the sense that generalizations about one type are equally applicable to the other, mutatis mutandis, this is often not true. Listed below are some of the hypothesized differences between positive and negative sanctions.

3.1 A’s Burden Of Response

When A’s influence attempt is based on a promise, B’s compliance obligates A to respond with a reward; whereas B’s failure to comply calls for no further response from A.

3.2 Role Of Costs

One important consequence of the asymmetry between positive and negative sanctions is that promises tend to cost more when they succeed, while threats tend to cost more when they fail (Boulding 1989, Parsons 1963, Schelling 1960). The difference can be summarized as follows: The bigger the threat, the higher the probability of success; the higher the probability of success, the less the probability of having to implement the threat; the less the probability of having to implement the threat, the cheaper it is to make big threats. The bigger the promise, the higher the probability of success; the higher the probability of success, the higher the probability of having to implement the promise; the higher the probability of having to implement the promise, the more expensive it is to make big promises (ceteris paribus).

3.3 Indicators Of Success

Whereas a successful threat requires no action by A, a successful promise obligates A to implement that sanction. In a well-integrated social system, where the probability that B will comply with A’s wishes is relatively high, promises will be more visible than threats. Indeed, it is precisely because threats are so successful in domestic politics that they are so difficult to detect. Since most citizens obey most laws most of the time, threats to punish lawbreakers have to be carried out with respect to only a small minority of citizens in most polities.

3.4 Efficacy

The question of the relative efficacy of positive versus negative sanctions in exercising influence has been much debated. Parson (1963) has argued that negative sanctions have more intrinsic effectiveness than positive sanctions in deterrence situations. And ever since Machiavelli and Hobbes, there have been those who argue that force is the ultimate influence technique. Identifying the conditions under which one type of sanction is more effective than another is likely to continue as a focus of research in political science as well as in other social sciences.

3.5 Legitimation

It is usually easier to legitimize demands based on positive sanctions than demands based on negative ones. An example is provided by one of the most important social institutions in the world—the institution of private property. Most societies have one set of rules specifying the conditions under which a person may be deprived of property and quite a different set of rules specifying conditions under which one person may augment another person’s property.

4. Foreign Policy Sanctions

Political scientists interested in international relations and foreign policy have devoted a great deal of research to sanctions during the last two decades of the twentieth century. Most of this research has focused on economic sanctions, with comparatively little attention devoted to military, diplomatic, or other noneconomic forms of sanctions. Although progress has occurred with respect to systematic gathering of empirical data (Hufbauer et al. 1990), refinement of concepts (Baldwin 1985), and development of theories, social scientific research on the role of sanctions in international relations is still in its infancy.

4.1 Methodological Problems

Five methodological problems provide useful foci for future research:

(a) Lack of agreement on terms and concepts. While some scholars conceive of economic sanctions in terms of mechanisms for making any type of influence attempt (Baldwin 1985), others define economic sanctions in terms of particular policy goals (Pape 1997). This lack of agreement on basic concepts not only impedes debate within the field of foreign policy studies, it is an obstacle to cross-fertilization between the study of economic sanctions in foreign policy and discussions of other kinds of sanctions in other areas of social science.

(b) Preoccupation with economic sanctions. Research on economic sanctions has been largely insulated from research on other techniques of statecraft. This insulation sometimes gives the impression that economic sanctions are sui generis, rather than treating them as a particular type of statecraft. Although actual or threatened military force is a military sanction, it too is usually viewed as a unique focus of inquiry. In order to understand when and why policy makers use economic sanctions, it is necessary to understand the alternatives among which policy makers choose. These alternatives include diplomatic, military, and/or verbal sanctions (propaganda). Future research on sanctions might usefully focus on comparative studies of alternative types of sanctions and the conditions under which each type is most likely to be cost-effective.

(c) Neglect of positive sanctions. Research on sanctions is heavily skewed toward negative sanctions. This is true not only of research by international relations scholars, but also of political science in general. During the last two decades, research on positive sanctions has increased (Davis 2000, Newnham 2000), but the emphasis is still disproportionately on negative sanctions.

(d) Lack of agreement on criteria of success. Scholars disagree as to which criteria should be used in measuring the success of economic sanctions. Some consider only the effectiveness of the influence attempt in achieving its goals (Morgan and Schwebach 1997, Pape 1997). Others argue that estimates of success should take into consideration the costs of the sanctions to the user, the costs for noncompliance inflicted on the target, the difficulty of the undertaking, and the comparative utility of alternative policy options (Baldwin 1985, 2000). This lack of agreement on how to conceive of success is not peculiar to the international relations literature. Unlike economics, political science lacks a standardized measure of value in terms of which success can be measured. There is much less agreement among political scientists as to what constitutes political success than there is among economists as to what constitutes economic success (Baldwin 1989). Developing a set of agreed upon criteria of success applicable to noneconomic, as well as economic, sanctions would be a valuable step in sanctions research.

(e) Premature generalization. Research on economic sanctions by international relations scholars frequently leads to premature attempts to specify policy implications. Some scholars, for example, imply that only foolish policy makers would use such policy instruments (Morgan and Schwebach 1997, Tsebelis 1990). In order to make judgements as to the wisdom of using economic sanctions in a given situation, however, one would need to know how effective such sanctions were likely to be, with respect to which goals and targets, at what cost, and in comparison with which policy alternatives (Baldwin 2000). Current research on economic sanctions rarely asks such questions.


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