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

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 instrumental in figuring out the mechanisms at play. While such an approach may not be new or special for researchers accustomed to case study research and methods of process tracing or pattern matching, a focus on mechanisms also goes a bit further as it is sensitive to contextual conditions: as such, mechanisms are not to be understood as deterministic but as embedded and interacting with the surrounding context in any given case (see e.g. Falleti and Lynch 2009 for this interesting point). That means how – and if at all – causal mechanism play out in a given case setting depends on the given contextual conditions.

By making contextual conditions – or boundary conditions – explicit, case study analysis of causal mechanisms opens up the opportunity to set the cases under observation into relation to others and to discuss the actual scope of the mechanisms as such. In that way, insights collected in one case may not only be of relevance for other cases, but we may even be able to make explicit statements about contextual specificities influencing the ways the mechanisms may play out (or not).

In the context of the Leverage Points project, which focuses on deep-rooted, systemic change, a focus on causal mechanisms can be seen as a step of abstraction from place-based research on the way to understand social-ecological systems in more general. Findings gathered in a specific case – i.e. a specifically bounded system – can be understood as a seed for a more general understanding of systemic principles and ways to influence these. However, to reap this potential, it appears important (1) to be explicit and inclusive about the way that the system boundaries of the case under investigation are drawn and about the peculiarities of the context at hand; and (2) to engage in cross-case comparisons and strive for a systemic cumulation of insights.

Recent publications from members of the Leverage Points team, and beyond, may provide some guidance and example of how to use such a mechanism approach:

A comprehensive methodological framework to analyse and build conceptual framework upon mechanism research has been provided recently by Gary Goertz in his book Multimethod research, causal mechanisms, and case studies. An integrated approach. In a comprehensive, clear and convincing manner, he stresses the great potential of analyses of causal mechanisms and draws ways in which within-case analyses and cross-case inference may cross-fertilize each other (see Figure below) and provide valid and relevant findings with a greater scope.

Fig. 1

Figure: The research triad: causal mechanism, cross-case inference, and within-case causal inference (Goertz 2017, 2).

Together with colleagues, we used this approach to understand and analyse the potentials of public participation of citizens and stakeholders for improving the environmental performance of political outputs. We first built a framework of interrelated mechanisms (see below) through which participation may enhance the environmental standard of political decisions, as well as their implementation and acceptability (Newig et al. 2017). To this end, we consulted the relevant literature in form of many conceptual and empirical contributions. Apart from the described mechanisms, we put specific attention to the mentioned (or implicit) contextual factors influencing the way mechanisms may operate in a given case and collected these into a comprehensive table. With this contribution, we aimed to set the basis for further inquiry to test, refine and further develop these causal mechanisms and their scope conditions, to arrive at a more general and systemic understanding of the processes at work.

Fig 2

Figure: Overview of Mechanisms Linking Participation to Environmental and Social Outcomes. (Newig et al. 2017, 6).

We empirically applied this framework in our new volume Participation for Effective Environmental Governance. Evidence from European Water Framework Directive Implementation (Kochskämper et al. 2018). Drawing upon our mechanism framework, we conducted a set of nested case studies or water governance in Spain, the UK, and Germany. The mechanism framework has been instrumental in guiding our research design and focus, and also allowed us to set the insights we gathered into a wider context and as such enlarge their scope.

To conclude, using causal mechanisms as a study focus may yield great potential to moderate the tension between (place-based) within-case research and between-case inquiry and to arrive at valid, contextually-bound, and meaningful insights. While, of course, such an approach also requires stringent and thorough research design, it may be instrumental in helping to understand how systems function and where levers may be found.



Elster, J. 1989. Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Falleti, Tulia G., and Julia F. Lynch. 2009. “Context and Causal Mechanisms in Political Analysis.” Comparative Political Studies 42(9): 1143–66.

Goertz, Gary. 2017. Multimethod Research, Causal Mechanisms, and Case Studies: An Integrated Approach. Princeton University Press.

Hedström, Peter, and Petri Ylikoski. 2010. “Causal Mechanisms in the Social Sciences.” Annual Review of Sociology 36(1): 49–67.

Kochskämper, Elisa, Edward Challies, Nicolas W. Jager, and Jens Newig (eds.). 2018. Participation for Effective Environmental Governance. Evidence from European Water Framework Directive Implementation. London: Routledge.

Newig, Jens, Edward Challies, Nicolas W. Jager, Elisa Kochskämper, Ana Adzersen. 2017. “The Environmental Performance of Participatory and Collaborative Governance: A Framework of Causal Mechanisms.” Policy Studies Journal (online first).






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