Decision-making approaches and theories fall within the subfield of foreign policy analysis, within the larger field of internation relations. Foreign policy analysis (known as FPA) is distinguished from other theoretical approaches in international relations by its insistence that the explanatory focal point must be the foreign policy decision makers themselves and not larger structural or systemic phenomena. Explanatory variables from all levels of analysis, from the most micro to the most macro, are of interest to the analyst to the extent that they affect the decisionmaking process. Thus, of all subfields in international relations, FPA is the most radically integrative theoretical enterprise. Investigations into the roles that personality variables, perception and construction of meaning, group dynamics, organizational process, bureaucratic politics, domestic politics, culture, and system structure play in foreign policy decision making are the core research agenda of FPA. But as Richard Snyder, one of the founders of FPA, and his colleagues Henry Bruck and Burton Sapin noted in 1954, these are only important as they have an impact on the only true agents in international affairs—human decision makers:
In a sense, then, in the age-old philosophy of social science debate concerning whether agents or structures are the primary determinants of behavior in the social world, FPA comes down squarely on the side of agents. FPA is the agent-centered theory of international relations. Foreign policy analysts argue that without an account of human agency in international relations theory, one cannot develop a satisfactory account of change over time in international affairs. Furthermore, given the immense destructive power inherent in internation relations, explanations that omit an examination of the role and efficacy of human agency in using and containing that power do less than they ought.
Here, then, is yet another difference between FPA approaches and other accepted approaches to understanding international relations. Not only does FPA give an account of agency, but it gives a specific, rather than a general, account of agency. In such approaches as game theory and rational choice explanations of foreign policy, the actor is conceptualized as a generic, rational, utility-maximizing decision maker. In contrast, theories of FPA unpack that generic "black-boxed" actor and discover that the idiosyncrasies of the actor do affect foreign policy choice. To use terms coined by Alexander George, FPA is more interested in "actor-specific" theory than "actor-general" theory.
In sum, then, FPA produces radically integrative, agent-oriented, and actor-specific theory. In these three ways, it remains a unique and easily distinguishable subfield of international relations.
A Word About the Explanandum What is it that foreign policy analysts seek to explain? To use a common phrase, what is the dependent variable in FPA?
Despite attempts to formulate "foreign policy" in terms of consistently operationalized variables, it must be admitted that what is to be explained may vary across research programs within FPA. Some programs focus on foreign policy as an output of decision making; others focus on the decision-making process in foreign policy. For example, the use of events data (discussed below) as one's dependent variable is an example of conceptualizing foreign policy as an output. In this tradition, foreign policy "events" gleaned from news media can be coded for some set of variables, such as the level of commitment implied by the event on the part of the acting nation. Standardized coding then allows for direct comparison of the outputs of various nation-state actors, as well as permitting a longitudinal analysis of the foreign policy behavior of one nation.
It is also possible to take a more process-oriented approach to what is meant by foreign policy. For example, one could use the policy positions of various actors as the dependent variable, tracing how a particular position becomes dominant within a decision-making group over time. One could walk the cat back yet another step and examine how such policy stances crystallize in the first place from basic cognitive processes such as perception, problem representation, and construction of meaning. Another step back would be to ask how the decision-making group comes to be in the first place, how structures and processes of groups are created and changed over time within a society. Role conceptions concerning the nation-state, and concerning various institutions and groups within the nation-state, could also be the focus of inquiry.
Both approaches to the explanandum in FPA have been fruitfully used, and insights from each type of research informs the other. It is true that choice of explanandum affects choice of methodology: aggregate statistical testing may be useful in events data studies, whereas process-tracing and interpretivist analysis might be more helpful with process-oriented conceptualizations of foreign policy.