Understanding with Theoretical Models

Journal of Economic Methodology, 21(1), 19–36. 2014

30 Pages Posted: 21 Oct 2017

See all articles by Petri Ylikoski

Petri Ylikoski

Tampere University

N. Emrah Aydinonat

University of Helsinki - Department of Political and Economic Studies

Date Written: March 25, 2014


This paper discusses the epistemic import of highly abstract and simplified theoretical models using Thomas Schelling's checkerboard model as an example. We argue that the epistemic contribution of theoretical models can be better understood in the context of a cluster of models relevant to the explanatory task at hand. The central claim of the paper is that theoretical models make better sense in the context of a menu of possible explanations. In order to justify this claim, we introduce a distinction between causal scenarios and causal mechanism schemes. These conceptual tools help us to articulate the basis for modelers' intuitive confidence that their models make an important epistemic contribution. By focusing on the role of the menu of possible explanations in the evaluation of explanatory hypotheses, it is possible to understand how a causal mechanism scheme can improve our explanatory understanding even in cases where it does not describe the actual cause of a particular phenomenon.

Keywords: models, explanation, causal mechanisms, segregation

JEL Classification: B40, B41

Suggested Citation

Ylikoski, Petri and Aydinonat, N. Emrah, Understanding with Theoretical Models (March 25, 2014). Journal of Economic Methodology, 21(1), 19–36. 2014, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3056367

Petri Ylikoski

Tampere University ( email )

Tampere, FIN-33101

N. Emrah Aydinonat (Contact Author)

University of Helsinki - Department of Political and Economic Studies ( email )

P.O. Box 54
FIN-00014 Helsinki

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