Causal mechanisms analysis – a potential way to bridge the divide between systemic and place-based research

Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation

By Nicolas W. Jager

In the Leverage Points project, as is often the case in empirical research and especially in sustainability sciences, we are caught between a focus on place-based research and the aspiration to generate insights which may be valid and relevant for a wider scope. One way to moderate this tension and to arrive at valid, context-related findings that may also have a wider scope is through utilizing causal mechanisms as focal points for analysis.

Discussions about the role and possibilities of a causal mechanisms perspective are prominent in social science research, and there exist numerous definitions (see e.g. Hedström and Ylikoski 2010 for an overview). A causal mechanism can be understood as “a continuous and contiguous chain of causal or intentional links between the explanans and the explanandum” (Elster 1989). As such, a close look at the processes at work in a given (place-based) case may be…

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