Causal Explanation in Global Analysis: A Critical Realist Rapprochement

Larissa Buchholz

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


The importance of reflexivity for social-scientific research is a truism. And yet reflexivity cannot be overemphasized when one moves to the global level. There are great risks of reification when one deals with global data sources, or when one extends theories developed in view of a (Western) nation-state to explain often qualitatively different transnational or global phenomena. Some scholars in the field have completely given up on the goal of causal explanation. Some even demanded that social science should integrate elements of chaos theory, because that’s what the global is about—chaotic flows that cannot be packed into a neat analytical architecture. Of course these are extremes, but they indicate the particular challenges that come from engaging with global problems: How to account for the complexity, even “ontological openess” (Marginson 2008, p. 313) of the objects, their often over-determined nature, without completely giving up the search for patterns and explanations? What kind of causal explanations can one develop that go beyond the search for “general laws,” which, given the diversity of social-cultural configurations in the global arena, clearly turn out elusive?

This memo engages with post-positivist Philosophy of Social Science to explore such questions. Philosophy of Social Science, after all, offers an entry to reflect and debate “what makes the good work good“ (Gorski 2013, 661). At issue are thus not so much the rigors of data collection, the technicalities of method, or the analytical tricks of theorizing, but perhaps something more profound: a broader vision of how all that can be brought together for causal explanation in ways that do justice to the intricacies of transnational and global research. Specifically, I want to discuss in which ways Critical Realism offers valuable tools of reflexivity for stringing “it” together in global analysis, that is, for reaching the goal of causal explanation without causal reification. To do so, I first summarize how mechanistic approaches to causal explanation—of which Critical Realism represents one current—provide a fertile alternative to the idea of “general laws” for global sociology in general. Against this background, I elucidate more specifically some unique advantages of a Critical Realist approach to causal mechanisms.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Number of pages5
JournalCritical Realism Network
StatePublished - 2016


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