Approaches to causation in the social and natural sciences and their implications for theory building in sustainability science

Today’s global problems are complex. Disentangling their causes is difficult as they result from the interplay of social and ecological processes across multiple scales. A plurality of notions of causation exist in the natural and social sciences, however, their application to interdisciplinary fields
such as sustainability science has created debate and confusion. The purpose of the research environment is to bring together causal thinking in the social and natural sciences to 1) clarify different notions, their relationships and compatibility, 2) assess disciplinary approaches in terms of their ability to capture the complex and social-ecological nature of the problems, and 3) develop integrated approaches to causal analysis for sustainability science.

First, we will compare causal concepts and approaches across relevant fields. Second, we will assess how each approach can be used to understand environmental phenomena in selected cases. Finally, our insights will be synthesized into an integrated approach and process for theory
development. The research will combine multiple methods including philosophical explication, empirical analysis, network and agent-based modelling in an iterative way to develop and test thinking about complex causal processes. The research environment brings together fields that
rarely intersect to build a foundation for deeper understanding of socio-ecological problems and their governance. These include social-ecological systems research, complex adaptive systems, process philosophy, philosophy of physics, philosophy of social science, analytical sociology and theoretical ecology. The project is a collaboration between Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC) at Stockholm University, the Institute of Analytical Sociology (IAS) at Linköping University, the Department of Theoretical Philosophy at Uppsala University and the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, Leipzig-Halle (UFZ) in Germany.

Keywords: Causation| complex adaptive systems | social-ecological interdependence
People: Maja Schlüter (SRC), Tilman Hertz (SRC), Maria Mancilla Garcia (SRC), Emilie Lindkvist (SRC), Sonja Radosavljevic (SRC), Karl Wennberg (IAS), Petri Ylikoski (IAS), Carl Nordlund (IAS), Lars-Göran Johansson (Uppsala University), Volker Grimm (UFZ)
Methods: philosophical analysis, empirical analysis, network analysis, agent-based modelling, dynamical systems modeling
Funding: Swedish National Science Foundation (VR), grant for an interdisciplinary research environment


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