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Unifying the Cognitive-Map and Operational-Code Approaches: A Theoretical Framework and an Empirical Example

Robert M. Cutler

This book chapter assimilates the cognitive map and operational code (OC) approaches to a mutually compatible framework, and demonstrates why this is useful. The framework for this synthesis is conceptual dependency analysis, a cognitive model that systematically represents the existence of a hierarchy of levels of abstraction in thinking. It works because the cognitive map and OC approaches can each be associated with a distinct level of human information processing. An example applying the synthesis to the prediction of a policy decision illustrates the usefulness of such a combination. The first part of the chapter summarizes the salient features of the conceptual dependency framework. The second part discusses its relationship to the cognitive map approach on the one hand, and to the OC approach on the other. An integrated notational system is introduced, permitting a given cognitive map to be transformed so as to reveal immanent higher-level cognitive structures, analogous to operational codes. The consequent adaptation of simulation techniques originally developed within the cognitive-map framework makes it possible, within the conceptual dependency context, to specify how such an OC constrains relationships that may predicted from a simulation based on the original cognitive map by itself. The logic of such a simulation is developed for one class of OC in particular. The third part of this chapter applies that logic to a particular example drawn from the author's work on Soviet foreign policy, develops metrics for distances between cognitive maps, and evaluates the results, which are favorable. The concluding part of the chapter (also reproduced below) assesses the pragmatic value of the new method, suggests how it may be refined, and explores some of its implications. The full text available here is definitive and corrects some nontrivial errors that escaped the copy-editor of the printed version. The chapter cites twenty-one sources and studies in English and Russian, and incorporates thirteen Figures and four Tables. It is available in printer-friendly HTML.
[0. Preliminary Remarks]
 1. Introduction: A Thumbnail Sketch of Conceptual Dependency Analysis
 2. The Integrated Framework
            2.1. Cognitive Mapping and Conceptual Dependency
            2.2. Operational Code and Decision Simulation
 3. An Illustrative Example: Soviet Polemics On Portugal
            3.1. The Soviet Response to the Portuguese Revolution
            3.2. Prediction by Cognitive Map
            3.3. Modification of the Cognitive-Map Prediction
            3.4. Evaluation of Predictions
 4. Conclusion
First publication:   Robert M. Cutler, "Unifying the Cognitive-Map and Operational-Code Approaches: A Theoretical Framework and an Empirical Example," pp. 91–121 in Cognitive Dynamics and International Politics, ed. Christer Jönsson (London: Frances Pinter, 1982).

[ page 116 ]


Although the union map of the two [domestic] Soviet tendencies [in foreign policy formation in the particular instance] is treated as if it were the cognition of a single actor, this does not necessarily imply that Soviet foreign policy decisions can always be considered as rational-actor calculations. One of the reasons for using the union-map technique here is that we lack interview data that would permit the application of more advanced techniques for the analysis of collective decision making. The possibility of discerning a 'master script' that guides the resolution of Soviet foreign policy debates is not denied. However, as Abelson (1973, pp. 333–7 passim) notes, the plan and theme levels can accommodate significant changes in content while the script remains unchanged. In such an instance, knowledge of the script alone would be insufficient for making predictions about individual Soviet foreign policy decisions. For this reason, the totalitarian model of Soviet politics tends to be unsatisfactory for the analysis of individual Soviet foreign policy decisions.

Much confusion has arisen, in the study of Soviet foreign policy, from the lack of distinction between two levels of abstraction: philosophical attitudes on the one hand, and specific policy positions on the other. These represent, in fact, two distinct levels of information processing. The cognitive-map method is appropriate to the 'interest group' approach (Skilling, 1966), and the OC method is appropriate to the 'tendency of articulation' approach (Griffiths, 1971, 1972). These methods are also appropriate to the investigation of the role of the press in the organizational process of Soviet foreign policy formation, and they offer an avenue for systematic investigation of collective decision making. It is worthwhile to combine these approaches, and the framework presented in this chapter may possibly be one way of doing that. Distinguishing between philosophical attitudes and particular policy preferences will contribute to eliminating the confusion between the 'interest group' and the 'tendency of articulation' approaches to the study of Soviet foreign policy formation. (See Cutler, 1982a, for a further

[ page 117 ]

discussion of these issues.)

Several features of the simulation deserve further study. One of these concerns the categorization of concepts into chunks. Some rules for a typology of chunks have been suggested here, but what could be the rules for classifying concepts into them? A similar observation could be made about the notion of an intensity scale within all chunks. Although it is intuitively plausible that such scales may exist, how are they to be constructed? Universally applicable rules for such tasks can be elaborated no more easily than a universal grammar can be created; even if such a system could be constructed, capable of regulating every possible case we might conceive, still we would not know and could not know whether that system 'naturally' existed a priori to our construction of it. So long as the simulation concerns only a single case or small number of cases, the construction of chunks and their intensity scales can only be based on an internalized contextual understanding of the situation. This fact does not exclude the possibility of inter-coder reliability checks. Multiple case studies, closely related and bearing on the same cognitive space, may be able to validate inductively constructed categories.


On the operational level, one can only say that the framework needs further work. The logically complex but important relations of enablement and gating, from conceptual dependency analysis, need to be incorporated. That will exacerbate the incompatible marriage of the mathematical model of logic (cognitive mapping) with the linguistic one (conceptual dependency analysis). The offspring of this marriage is already a problem child that requires better defined rules of conduct. Such issues are therefore best addressed in the context of further formalization of the model. Here I have only tried, first, to suggest the possibility of integrating, within an analytical framework informed by the existence of multiple levels of abstraction in thought, two approaches to the study of cognition and choice that already exist in the discipline of political science; and second, to apply that integrated approach to the empirical analysis of one sort of cognitive activity that is related to the behaviour of actors in world politics.

Dr. Robert M. Cutlerwebsiteemail ] was educated at MIT and The University of Michigan, where he earned a Ph.D. in Political Science, and has specialized and consulted in the international affairs of Europe, Russia, and Eurasia since the late 1970s. He has held research and teaching positions at major universities in the United States, Canada, France, Switzerland, and Russia, and contributed to leading policy reviews and academic journals as well as the print and electronic mass media in three languages.

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This excerpt: Copyright © Robert M. Cutler <>
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This Web-based compilation: Copyright © Robert M. Cutler <>
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First Web-published: 10 August 1996
Content last modified: 6 April 2005
Document last reformatted: 6 April 2005