International Relations Causation in International Relations
Adam R. C. Humphreys
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0274


Causal claims are bound into the fabric of international relations (IR). Efforts to explain past outcomes, to predict future developments, to comprehend the range of options open to international actors, to advance policy prescriptions, and to evaluate policy decisions vis-à-vis possible alternatives all typically rely, explicitly or implicitly, on causal claims. Moreover, politicians, policymakers, and other state and nonstate actors who seek to manipulate particular aspects of world politics are also (whether they realize it or not) typically acting on causal claims. Acquiring reliable causal knowledge is therefore extremely valuable. It is, however, a challenging task. The content of causal claims is shaped not only by relevant facts about the world, but also by ideas about causation itself—for example, about what ‘causing’ is, about the kinds of things that can be causes (and effects), about how causes can be identified, and about what constitutes an adequate Causal Explanation. These are tricky and controversial issues which are often submerged below the surface of our thinking. The challenge of arriving at a clear understanding is reflected in the divisions within work which explicitly engages with questions about causation in IR, divisions which are also found within the philosophical literature on which this work draws. It is also reflected in the tendency, within the broader discipline, to set questions about causation to one side, either because they are viewed as too hard to answer or because it is not obvious how answering them will improve our knowledge of world politics. In order to gain a full picture of debates about causation in IR and their implications for substantive topics it is helpful to explore three broad kinds of literature: first, the philosophical texts which provide the backdrop against which discussions of causation in IR take place; second, existing debates about causation in IR, encompassing both mainstream discussions of methods for causal inference and more specialist literatures on causal realism, the nature of causal explanation, and the relationship between historical and causal inquiry; and third, literature in IR which explicitly examines how positions on underlying questions about causation can and do shape positions on substantive topics in IR.

General Overview

In the mainstream discipline of IR, which Patrick Jackson characterizes as “neopositivist” (Jackson 2011: 42), it is widely assumed not only that we can advance causal claims, but that we should, and that such claims are best generated through the application of particular methods of causal inquiry. Consequently, debates about causation occur principally at the level of methodology, for example, in discussions about the relative merits of quantitative and qualitative methods for causal inference. There is little explicit engagement with the underlying philosophical issues. Outside of this mainstream, two very different approaches to causation may be identified. On the one hand, many scholars of an interpretive or critical disposition disavow causal inquiry, regarding it as overly restrictive. On the other hand, the smaller group of scholars in IR who explicitly engage with philosophical debates about causation tend to be critical both of the mainstream discipline’s prioritization of ‘methods-talk’ over engagement with the underlying issues and of the supposition that interpretive and critical approaches must be ‘non-causal.’ As a consequence of this diversity of approaches, gaining an overview of debates about causation in IR is difficult. A number of sources are, nonetheless, useful. Hollis and Smith 1991 is a classic introduction, although its narrow understanding of what causal inquiry consists in and its insistence that the kinds of questions that can be answered through causal inquiry are categorically different from those which can be answered through interpretive inquiry has been much criticized, for example in Kurki 2008. Suganami 1996, Kurki 2008, and Lebow 2014 are all stimulating book-length engagements with the topic of causation in IR, although each work adopts a very different approach from the others. Grynaviski 2013 uses a substantive problem (how to explain the Cuban Missile Crisis) to highlight the importance of how we think about causation. Jackson 2011 provides a valuable survey of the background issues in the philosophy of science and social science. Humphreys 2017 introduces a collection of issues which showcases contemporary thinking about causation and Causal Explanation in IR.

  • Grynaviski, Eric. “Contrasts, Counterfactuals, and Causes.” European Journal of International Relations 19.4 (2013): 823–846.

    DOI: 10.1177/1354066111428971

    Uses debates about the causes of the Cuban Missile Crisis as a frame for exploring how and why scholars of international relations disagree about what counts as a cause. Argues that many such disagreements can be overcome by focusing on the form taken by practical research questions and the kind of explanatory information they demand. Available online by subscription or purchase.

  • Hollis, Martin, and Steve Smith. Explaining and Understanding International Relations. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991.

    A classic, widely read introduction to different ways of thinking about world politics. Situates causal inquiry as part of ‘explanation’ and thereby distinguishes it categorically from interpretive ‘understanding.’ The narrow construal of causation and Causal Explanation to which this gives rise has since been widely criticized within IR.

  • Humphreys, Adam R. C. “Introduction.” In Special Issue: Problems of Causation in World Politics. Edited by Hidemi Suganami and Adam Humphreys. Journal of International Relations and Development 20.4 (2017): 659–666.

    DOI: 10.1057/jird.2016.14

    Introduces a special edition which showcases contemporary thinking about causation and Causal Explanation in IR and illustrates how philosophical considerations inform debates about a range of substantive topics in world politics. Available online by subscription or purchase.

  • Jackson, Patrick Thaddeus. The Conduct of Inquiry in International Relations: Philosophy of Science and its Implications for the Study of World Politics. Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2011.

    Not exclusively focused on causation, but provides a valuable survey of the approaches to scientific knowledge production that are employed in IR and defended by philosophers and in relation to which positions on causation are situated. Defends a pluralist view in which there are multiple possible routes to scientific (and hence causal) knowledge.

  • Kurki, Milja. Causation in International Relations: Reclaiming Causal Analysis. Cambridge Studies in International Relations 108. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511491481

    Links the divisions within IR around the nature and utility of causal analysis to the influence of David Hume’s ideas on causal thinking in the social sciences. Proposes, in their place, a “deeper and broader” understanding of causation which (compared to the Humean approach, and the position defended in Hollis and Smith 1991) expands the range of problems that causal analysis can address.

  • Lebow, Richard Ned. Constructing Cause in International Relations. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781107256538

    Defends an idealist and constructivist account of causation as a category of understanding imposed on the world. Argues that, in IR, and in the social sciences more broadly, it is more productive to focus on developing causal narratives concerning the occurrence of specific outcomes of interest than to seek to develop causal generalizations.

  • Suganami, Hidemi. On the Causes of War. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1996.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198273387.001.0001

    Uses Kenneth Waltz’s classic Man, The State and War (New York: Columbia University Press, 1959) as a frame for identifying the different kinds of questions we can ask about the causes of war and the different kinds of evidence that might help us to answer those questions. Makes a case for the analytical centrality of causal narratives which explain the origins of particular wars.

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