The social sciences were developed to understand human behavior and social interactions. They were built by carefully separating humans from nature and then segmenting modes and types of human activity. Social scientists have focused on and excelled in investigations of the properties – the structures and processes – of social systems. The remarkable advances in the social sciences could not have taken place without such differentiations. But the social sciences may have to reconsider their traditional boundaries and adjust to new ‘realities’. 

We recognise that humans are embedded in three distinct systems, each with its specific properties: the social system (the focus of the social sciences), the natural system (the life supporting properties that affect and are affected by human activities) and the cyber system (what what we call cyberspace, which has its own distinctive properties).

Clearly, individuals and societies require, even depend upon, the security and sustainability of the social and the natural systems. Increasingly, we recognise that it is very difficult, near impossible, to disconnect from the cyber domain and systems. The challenge for the social sciences is to address interactions among these three systems. The state systems of the 21st century are not likely to insulate, or extract, themselves from the cyber arena. For the social sciences, the question is: does this matter? If so how? If not, why not?

Even more compelling is the question: to what extent can we take the knowledge we have built in the social sciences, the theories we have developed, and the methods of inquiry we use from the traditional arena into the cyber domain? (see

Cyberspace – new domain of interaction

From a social science perspective, cyberspace is a constructed space of virtual social interaction. Elsewhere, we explore the cyber domain in greater depth (Choucri, 2012); here we note only that, with the Internet at its core, cyberspace is:

  • created through the interconnection of millions of computers by a global network such as the Internet
  • anchored in physical elements that enable interconnection
  • built as a layered construct for processing, manipulating, exploiting, and augmenting information, as well as facilitating interaction among people
  • enabled by institutional intermediation and organisation
  • characterised by decentralisation and interplay among these actors, constituencies and interests.

While considerable advances have been made in understanding how human behavior affects the natural environment (and the other way around) the ecology of the cyber sphere is not fully understood, nor are its shifting parameters.

Dilemma for the social sciences

We have not yet engaged in a systematic comparison of the ‘real’ and virtual domains, but we do appreciate that specific cyber features are a challenge to the social sciences, in general and, most notably, to international relations. Such challenges include:

  • temporality – replaces conventional temporality with near instantaneity
  • physicality – transcends constraints of geography and physical location
  • permeation – penetrates boundaries and jurisdictions
  • fluidity – sustains shifts and reconfigurations
  • participation – reduces barriers to activism and political expression
  • attribution – obscures identities of actors and links to action
  • accountability – bypasses mechanisms of responsibility.

Individually, each factor listed above is at variance with our common understanding of international realities. Jointly, they create powerful disconnects that impinge upon, if not contradict, the concept of sovereignty and the traditional, usually vertical, structures of power and influence. This is a system with increasing diversity of individual, groups, and non-state actors – all expressing voice and exerting influence in a context of decentralisation, localisation and asymmetry in modes of advantages, power, and influence.

Illustrating the challenge

We have yet to formalise concepts of cyber power, cyber conflict or cyber warfare, in relation to their functional counterpart in the traditional order. So, too, the powerful role of deterrence in conventional strategic interactions is not readily portable to the cyber domain.

The traditional concept of security connected to military defense and protection of borders has been augmented by taking into account the sustainability of the entire social system. The imperatives of the environmental system and the integrity of its life-supporting properties constitute a distinct trajectory with dominant properties that are not constructed by humans. Its sustainability is essential for the survival and security of the social system.

While environmental metrics have been developed, they are usually dealt with in, or in the context of the social system – but seldom with reference to, or compared with, cyber-metrics. At the same time, cyber metrics remain to be examined in conjunction with social or environmental metrics or contexts. Such an undertaking is a major challenge for the social sciences.

Managing expansion of new knowledge

Concurrently, the growing demand for new knowledge to help manage transitions toward a sustainable future further reinforces the relevance of cyberspace in the process and its connections to the other trajectories of security and sustainability. To increase the likelihood of the anticipated shift toward knowledge-intensive sustainability solutions, and in a situation of relatively underdeveloped scientific and technological foundations for sustainable development, it is imperative that existing knowledge of all types is readily accessible to interested communities everywhere.

Over time, we expect access to cyber venues to reinforce the synergy and to improve performance along the cyber and the sustainability trajectories.

We propose to draw on lessons developed through analysis of the sustainability problematique highly relevant to cyberspace in an international frame of reference. The lessons are derived from experience with the Global System for Sustainable Development (GSSD), a multilingual knowledge system focusing on the uses of cyber venues for knowledge provision, access and retrieval, with particular emphasis on all aspects of sustainable development, see

The GSSD ontology system was designed at a time when sustainable development was a new issue in both the scholarly and the policy communities, with little foundational knowledge or empirical grounding. Its ontology of sustainability is anchored in the master variables (population, resources and technology) and their constituent elements – rooted in an integrated theoretical framework – and rests on empirically-based core organising principles.

The ontology was anchored in four features associated with diverse facets of the master variables and their disaggregation:

  • types of human activities
  • known problems associated with human activities
  • types of problems associated with each activity
  • scientific and technological solutions to known problems
  • socioeconomic and national policy responses to known problems
  • coordinated international action.

Each feature is unbundled into a set of nested subcategories. The overall ontology is then completed and bounded by types of coordinated international actions.

Whether these factors constitute essential elements of a viable solution strategy for understanding and tracking cyberpolitics in the longer run, and whether the strategy is scalable and portable, remain to be seen. Based on the GSSD initiative, we believe that this approach can be generalised and applied to many other issues and aspects of cyberpolitics in international relations.

Karl W. Deutsch observed that relevant knowledge depends on four things: the interests of the knower, the characteristics of situation to be known, the methods by which situation features can be determined, and the ‘system of symbols and physical facilities by which the data selected are recorded and used for later application’ (Deutsch et al. 1957, 5-6).

End note

The construction of cyberspace surely ranks as one of the most important products of human ingenuity during the last part of the 20th Century. The expansion of cyber access and cyber participation will also rank among the most remarkable examples of technological diffusion and adaptation throughout human history. But some features of the new domain are particularly vexing for the social sciences generally and in international relations particularly as they undermine traditional principles of order, such as sovereignty, jurisdiction, territoriality, boundaries, in international relations, to note only a few.


  • Choucri, Nazli. 2012. Cyberpolitics in International Relations, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Choucri, Nazli. 2012. “Cyberpolitics in International Relations,” in Joel Krieger (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Theoretical Economics (TE), (pp. 267-271), New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Choucri, Nazli. 2013, Spring. “Cyberpolitics in International Relations”. Précis, MIT Center for International Studies