Causation-in-the-world: A Contribution to Meta-theory of IR

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This article examines critical realists’ key contention that ‘causing’, or the operation of causal powers, is real or mind-independent. Against their opponents (causal idealists), they point out the (seeming) empirical obviousness of the mind-independence of causal powers, causal idealism’s lack of ‘ontological grounding’, its ‘epistemic fallacy’ and so on. The validity or force of such arguments is ultimately dubious, however. Still, the understanding that causal powers are real is a necessary presupposition of scientific knowledge production and application and of our everyday thinking and practice; realists and idealists can converge on this point. Moreover, there is nothing in causal idealism as such that is incompatible with critical realists’ key insight that causal laws should be understood as stating the ways things work, producing observable regularities only in closed systems and that regularities are not an intrinsic feature of causal relations. I conclude by exploring the implications of this line of thinking for the study of world politics, endorsing a move from a search for parsimonious theories that explain regular patterns observable in the international system towards a historical study of global social relations, which pays attention to causal complexes, diversity of historical contexts and the contested nature of causal interpretations.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)623-643
Number of pages21
JournalMillennium: Journal of International Studies
Issue number3
Early online date01 May 2013
Publication statusPublished - 31 May 2013


  • Causation
  • critical realism
  • ontology


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