Black box theory is a term applied to philosophy, political science and the natural sciences to describe things that can only be accurately defined by looking at their inner workings. Describing the function of the thing coupled with an understanding of how its exterior correlates within its interior is the goal of black box theory. The theory has been applied to politics to describe national and international governmental policies and practices.

Basic Definition

The black box theory of politics states that the actions of political parties, lobbyists and other government players such as legislators and state governors is most effectively studied by looking at the "inputs" and "outputs" of the political system. The inputs are the pressures put on the system and on politicians while the outputs are the results, such as new laws, changes in policies or the changing behaviors of legislators.

Exposing the Box

Black box theory treats the internal considerations of the political world as virtually unknowable -- they're in a black box. The box is "black" because it is impossible to understand what's inside the box without being a part of the system. This is akin to the idea of being a "political insider." Without that firsthand knowledge, politics remains a mystery, or at best a cover-up for government's true actions. Only by opening or exposing the box can the true nature of political systems be known.

Origins of the Term

The idea of a black box theory has its roots in a number of different disciplines. Scientists, for example, use the theory to test what will happen if an input is placed into an unknowable system (see Reference 3). An orange placed in one side of a physical black box will fall out on the other side of the box, but what happens in the short amount of time between the input and the falling out of the orange? These sort of theoretical questions are applied to politics because of the lack of transparency of most political systems. While citizens know much about their government, such as how leaders are elected and the process for passing laws, a great deal of what happens behind closed doors is kept secret or is a mystery to the ordinary citizens. Black box theory seeks to uncover the hidden processes of politics.

Paradigm Not Toolbox

While black box theory has an interesting aim, the tools for going about exposing the political system are not explicitly laid out in the theory. As such, black box theory of politics is more of a useful paradigm for wanting to know more about government than it is a toolbox of techniques for digging inside the minds and actions of legislators and lobbyists. Furthermore, black box theory is sometimes used to support conspiracy theories. It is assumed that if the government's actions are secret, they must be dangerous or subversive. However, black box theory in and of itself does not make a judgment call on the nature of politics but simply states that to truly know politics, you have to be either an insider or must seek to break through the superficial appearances.