The logic of historical explanation in the social sciences

James Mahoney*, Erin Kimball, Kendra L. Koivu

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

115 Scopus citations


Historical explanations seek to identify the causes of outcomes in particular cases. Although social scientists commonly develop historical explanations, they lack criteria for distinguishing different types of causes and for evaluating the relative importance of alternative causes of the same outcome. This article first provides an inventory of the five types of causes that are normally used in historical explanations: (1) necessary but not sufficient, (2) sufficient but not necessary, (3) necessary and sufficient, (4) INUS, and (5) SUIN causes. It then introduces a new methodĝ€" sequence elaborationĝ€"for evaluating the relative importance of causes. Sequence elaboration assesses the importance of causes through consideration of their position within a sequence and through consideration of the types of causes that make up the sequence as a whole. Throughout the article, methodological points are illustrated with substantive examples from the field of international and comparative studies.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)114-146
Number of pages33
JournalComparative Political Studies
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2009


  • Causality
  • Explanation
  • Logic
  • Sequence analysis
  • Set theory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science

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