The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight


Name of the article… and its coordinates?

Ludvig Norman (2021) “Rethinking causal explanation in interpretive international studies,” European Journal of International Relations (OnlineFirst).

What’s the argument?

In brief, scholarship that uses “interpretative methods” can and should provide causal explanations – and I provide a model for doing just that.

In less brief, when we talk about interpretive approaches in the study of international relations, we’re talking, in broad terms, about research that focuses on how meaning – such as the beliefs people share (or don’t share) and the language that they use – shapes social interaction. It seems that interpretive methods are gaining in popularity in the field. They’ve been used to study a wide variety of core subjects in international-relations scholarship, including international organizations, peace building, and diplomacy.

Interpretive research often draws contrasts between cultural formations, such as “nationality” and “race.”  It shows how such understandings “enable” distinctive kinds of practices, relationships, political claims, and patterns of exclusion. Interpretativists should add more explicit causal explanations of particular outcomes – such as military interventions, outbreaks of violent conflict, and trade agreements – into . I suggest a method for tracing causal processes in interpretive research

Why should we care?

Causal explanation lies at the heart of social science. My article provides guidance for interpretivists by showing how the same understanding of causation associated with statistical applications – the difference between the presence and absence of a cause for an outcome- also applies to interpretive perspectives. It guards against the tendency among interpretive researchers to formulate new, often idiosyncratic, notions of cause.

The article also shows non-interpretive researchers how this understanding of causation can be used outside its conventional statistical applications. Ideally, if you’re doing interpretive work, my approach should help make that work better. If you’re not, but you’re perhaps curious, then I hope that the article shows you what interpretive research is and what it can be.

We should believe your argument because?

I provide what I hope is a careful discussion of widely accepted understandings of causal analysis, examples from important interpretive work, and even a roadmap for how to actually do causal analysis that’s appropriate to interpretive methods.

You decide to write the article in the first place because?

I grew increasingly frustrated with how international-relations scholars discuss causal explanations in relations to interpretive theory. When they make explicitly causal arguments, interpretive scholars too often remain vague on what exactly they’re doing. Non-interpretive scholars are too often dismissive of the idea that interpretive research can make causal claims, because they employ an overly restricted understanding of what it means to “do” causal inquiry.

What would you most like to change about the article… and why?

The argument remains at a fairly high level of abstraction. I think it could use more concrete examples to illustrate its claims. This would, I think, make it more accessible to a broad range of international-relations scholars and political scientists.

The +1: How hard was it to get the article published?

Pitching the argument to a general International Relations audience – and not just to those already deeply immersed in social science methodology – was a real challenge! Referees invariably included both specialists and non-specialists in methodology; they tended to pull the article in different directions. The paper accumulated some rejections and a number of rounds of review. But in the end it worked out extremely well, as it landed at the European Journal of International Relations.

Ludvig Norman is Associate Professor of Political Science at Stockholm University, Sweden and Senior Fellow at the Institute of European Studies at UC Berkeley. His research focuses on Institutions of the European political order, democratic responses to political extremism and social science methodology.

Posted on 26 August, 2021