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milja kurki - causation in IR

#Notes: Milja Kurki on Causation in IR

In recent times, in International Relations (IR) scholarship, the concept of “causation” has undergone important debates and revisions. One such revision emerged from Milja Kurki’s essay “Causes of a Divided Discipline: Rethinking the Concept of Cause in International Relations Theory”, published in 2006.

The premise of the essay is as follows:

The term causation has undergone a significant change in IR. While the positivist school (realism and liberalism) have “extolled the virtues of causal analysis”, the post-positivist school (critical theory, constructivism, and feminist theory) has rejected “causal analysis in favour of constitutive theorising”.

However, causation, as we understand it in IR, is limited by the Humean take of cause, which seeks to reify a narrow empiricist take on causal analysis.

In this essay, Kurki seeks to broaden this understanding by pushing forward Aristotle’s understanding of cause in IR theory. This essay argues that we (students and scholars of IR) must move beyond a narrow empiricist take on cause towards deepening our concept of cause. In doing so, Kurki seeks to “radically reinterpret the causal-constitutive theory divide” in IR.

How do we understand “cause” in International Relations?

Martin Hollis and Steve Smith noted that there are “always two stories to tell” in IR. One helps explain IR through causal analysis, while the other seeks to understand IR by venturing into meaning-making, power-dissecting, and action-interpreting critical research.

The first school of thought is ideally the rationalist school, which looks at the question of why something occurs. An example could be: “Why do balances recur?” The second school of thought is reflectivist, which argues that causality is neither necessary nor desirable.

However, there is no constructive engagement between the two in the sense of trying to bridge the gaps between the two. Moreso, Kurki notes that the “uncritical acceptance of a so-called Humean conception of causation” is the cause of the disciplinary division in IR.

What is the Humean philosophy of causation?

David Hume, an 18th-century Scottish Enlightenment philosopher and historian, pushed forth the empiricist philosophy. Hume argued that all knowledge emanates from sense experience. He was influenced by Rene Descartes, who narrowed the conception of cause by focusing on the notion of “efficient cause” as the only cause of an event.

Hume advanced a radical empiricist critique of metaphysics, arguing that reliable knowledge will only emerge as a result of human perception. Perception, he noted, should take precedence over speculation about reality. By focusing on acquiring knowledge only through “observable”, Hume sought to challenge the ontological reality of causes. For him, all knowledge is based on our experience of the empirical world.

For Hume,

Causal necessity is something that exists in the mind, not in objects… or necessity is nothing but that determination of the thought to pass from causes to effects and from effects to causes, according to their experienced union.

(Hume, 1739)

Logical Positivism and Hume

Causal relations, for Hume, emanated from “regularities of patterns of observables”. Moreover, such causal relations are only true knowledge. They are regularity deterministic. Meaning their recurrence is observable. This led to a new set of understanding, which relied on “if A then B” relations.

Moreover, causes were now seen as merely “moving” in relation to one another. They are moving, in essence, due to “push and pull” factors. If “A” increases, then “B” increases or decreases (whatever you may deem fit).

An influential school of thought emerged as a result of Humeanism. Logical positivists. In the early 20th century, logical positivists pushed Humean ideas into a “law-like” philosophy of science. It emerged as an anti-thesis of “speculation”, deemed false knowledge.

As a result of these changes in the philosophy of science, deductive reasoning gained significantly. Falsification (by Karl Popper) and other deductive methods gained momentum over inductive reasoning. If there was no generalisability, then that knowledge was treated as “unscientific and mere speculation”.

20th-century knowledge production has heavily relied on causality and the generation of “general laws”. Humean knowledge has been accepted as “taken for granted” in most of the social sciences. Kurki notes although the Hermeneutic school (known as the interpretation-based school) rejected this over-emphasis on Humean causality, it could not escape the Humean lens in its analysis.

Influence of David Hume on International Relations

David Hume’s influence on IR is profound. Hume’s causation has deeply informed the positivist and empirical research in IR. For instance, a classic method text in political science, Designing Social Inquiry by Garry King, Bob Keohane, and Sidney Verba, pushed forth causal analysis as paramount to IR and political science research.

For them, causality refers to the “causal effect” exerted by the “explanatory variable” on a “dependent variable”. It means A leads to B, which is possible when A (an independent variable) changes/or is changed and its effective change is on “B” (dependent variable).

Another example is that nukes cause peace. If there are more nukes, there is more peace. This is a line of argument pushed forth by Ken Waltz in his Adelphi Papers.

For these scholars, “causal relations” are implicit in their relations between observables or patterns of observables. Moreover, causality, for them, is an epistemic concept. Meaning they don’t treat relations as causal, not constitutive. They treat states as merely billiard balls on a table without a prior, not as inherently having a unique history, values, and shared beliefs that cause changes in relations.

Kurki notes:

Indeed, if we start paying attention to causal terminologies in a wider ‘everyday’ sense—to words such as ‘because’, ‘leads to’, ‘produces’, ‘makes’, ‘enables’, and ‘constraints’—we can see a great deal of broader (but only implicitly ‘causal’) terminology is at work in empiricist IR theorising”.

Reconceptualising Causation in IR

One of the earliest critiques of causality in IR emerged from what scholars have referred to as “constitutive”, also referred to as “reflectivist” theorizing of IR. This school gained momentum at the end of the Cold War in 1991. With the changes in the new world, there were newer ways of envisioning the world as it were. Bob Keohane spoke of it as a “reflectivist turn” in IR.

The constitutive scholarship makes a case that causality is overtly deterministic. It only provides materialist explanations for things. It does not value “cultures, norms, and identity”. More so, causality does not value ideas as causing things. In his famous essay, Alexander Wendt argued, “Anarchy is what states make of it”, meaning anarchy itself is not a deterministic term. Still, its meaning depends on how states interpret it, and their position in it.

Constitutive School and Causation

Constitutive school argued that “theories about the world do not simply reflect the world, but are also ‘constitutive’ of social reality.” In his famous essay “Social Forces, States and World Orders: Beyond International Relations Theory”, Robert Cox equated causality with the ahistorical neorealist framework. He argued that world politics is constitutive of “forces”—material, ideational, and institutional—that produce and shape our world order and its agents.

Similarly, in his Writing Security, David Campbell notes that his “interpretive position” is opposed to “cataloguing, calculating, and specifying the real causes”. For him, representations matter because they produce consequences.

Constructivists have sought to oscillate between causality and constitutive theorising as a taking the middle ground. But, their causality assessment is a deeper account of ontological causality—and not epistemological causality.

Milja Kurki notes there is, however, a great divide between causative and constitutive theorising in IR. As a result, we must think deeply about the concept of a cause beyond the “push and pull” efficient cause.

The Study of Causation through Philosophical Realism

Milja Kurki notes that we must think of causation through an “ontologically grounded conceptional of causation”. The so-called philosophical realists propose such a conception. Some philosophical realists include Alexander Wendt, David Dessler, Heikki Patomaki, and Colin Wight.

For philosophical realists, causation exists within the “real ontological entities”. This means entities are already made up—differently. Causal analysis, therefore, refers to assessing causes “out there” (beyond our sense perception).

Here, the central focus of causal analysis is:

…not the analysis of isolated independent variables (through statistical methods), but rather understanding the complex interaction of a variety of different kinds of causal factors (through the building of conceptual frameworks).

(Kurki, 2006)

Causation, for philosophical realists, is commonsensical. It is loosely defined as “all those things that bring about produce, direct, or contribute to states of affairs or changes”. Philosophical realists seek to transcend Humean causality. For them, regularities are neither necessary, not sufficient.

Aristotle’s Conception of Causation

The Greek term “aition” refers to the cause—but it does not have the same meaning as we understand the cause in today’s world. It was rather complex. Aition meant anything contributing to the production and maintenance of a certain reality.

For Aristotle, there existed four causes.

  1. Material cause
  2. Formal cause
  3. Efficient cause
  4. Final cause

Material cause refers to a “fundamental part” of any explanation—as it accounts for matter “out of which” things come to be. For example, a Table exists as a result of wood, metal, etc.

Formal cause refers to that which shapes or defines matter. It could be ideational, as something to refer to an “idea” of a thing. If wood is a material cause, then the structure is a formal cause. What, then, is formal? It would be a four-legged instrument on which things could be placed. That is a formal cause.

Both “material cause” and “formal cause” are known as “constitutive causes”. They make up the most of what an entity is. They are also known as “active causes”, as opposed to “conditioning causes”, which refer to “efficient cause” and “final cause”. The latter two causes, through their actions, produce change.

Efficient cause is the primary mover of a source of change. Here, it may be a carpenter as a maker of the table.

Final cause refers to the end purpose of the act/entity itself. It leads to “making things happen” or “that for the sake of which” something occurs. In the case of a table, it is to keep things on top of it—or for whatever unholy purposes you may deem fit.


All these causes constitute an entity or an event. Accommodating this understanding would be more commonsensical. This understanding will allow us to move beyond the mechanistic relations of dependent and independent variables—that overtly restrict our ability to study and understand the world around us.

Kurki notes:

If we accept that causes, not only ‘push and pull’, but ‘condition’ or ‘constrain and enable’, we need to start recognising that there are some serious problems in the causal vs. constitutive theory ‘self-image’ in IR.

(Kurki, 2006)

The Aristotelian frame of studying causality would allow us to accept that “constitutive claims are essentially inseparable from causal claims”. Studying IR through the lens of Aristotle would provide us with a more situated, more constitutive aspect of an entity and its actions in the world.


  1. KURKI M. Causes of a divided discipline: rethinking the concept of cause in International Relations theory. Review of International Studies. 2006;32(2):189-216. doi:10.1017/S026021050600698X
  2. Kurki, Milja. Causation in International Relations: Reclaiming Causal Analysis. N.p.: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Cover Photo by Sunder Muthukumaran on Unsplash

2 thoughts on “#Notes: Milja Kurki on Causation in IR”

  1. This is a solid outline. Jackson in ‘The Conduct of Inquiry in International Relations’ engages with Kurki and other critical realists, although he was criticised in turn by scholars like Wight.

    Patrick James uses Kurki’s concepts in a recent reevaluation of the realist(a.k.a. Hobbesian, realpolitik) theoretical tradition.

    1. Many thanks to you for reading my blog 🙂 I have read PT Jackson and Dan Nexon’s “Relations Before States” — it is an interesting piece. I must read the Conduct of Inquiry in International relations, to gain a depth in my own thinking. Many thanks for bringing that up.

      Happy Reading 🙂

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