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Causal Mechanisms and Process Patterns  

Thinking Within or Without the Box 

Jörg Friedrichs

University of Oxford

Department of International Development

Queen Elizabeth House

3 Mansfield Road

Oxford OX1 3TB


Tel.: ++44/1865/281820



Thanks are due to the 2009/10 class of Oxford’s Master of Science in Global Governance and

Diplomacy for pushing me to write this paper, as well as the 2010/11 class for useful comments.

Special thanks are also due to Emanuel Adler, Peter Hedström, David Houghton, Adam Hum-

phreys and Friedrich Kratochwil for their helpful suggestions and comments.

Causal Mechanisms and Process Patterns  
Thinking Within or Without the Box 


This research note introduces process patterns as a promising methodological alternative to caus-

al mechanisms. The utility of causal mechanisms as an explanatory tool to unpack the “black

boxes” defined by empirical generalizations over a given field is fully acknowledged. However,

causal mechanisms are only one subcategory of a wider category: social pathways. The idea un-

derlying social pathways is that the social world is punctuated by recurrent sequences of human

interaction. Apart from causal mechanisms, process patterns are another promising subcategory

of social pathways. They can be understood as recurrent sequences of human interaction that are

observed prior to the specification of social domains over which empirical generalizations may

be postulated. This opens a promising methodological route for research design and empirical

research. Insofar as similar processes occur in different social domains, IR scholars can profita-

bly apply the notion of process patterns to engage in innovative projects of transdisciplinary re-

search and collaboration (some pioneering research in this vein has already taken place, but the

notion of process patterns is needed for the method to gain the recognition it deserves).


Social pathways, causal mechanisms, process patterns

Causal Mechanisms and Process Patterns  
Thinking Within or Without the Box 

Causal mechanisms are an accepted part of social scientific methodology. They are convention-

ally understood as explanatory tools to unpack the “black boxes” defined by empirical generali-

zations over a given field of inquiry. General and comparative social and political scientists have

all contributed to the debate on causal mechanisms.1 International Relations (IR) scholars have

also made significant contributions.2 A variety of methodological surveys are readily available.3

This research note introduces process patterns as a promising methodological alternative to caus-

al mechanisms. The utility of causal mechanisms as a supplement to conventional strategies of

empirical generalization is fully acknowledged. However, it must be noted that causal mechan-

isms are only one subcategory of a wider category: social pathways. The idea underlying social

pathways is that the social world is punctuated by recurrent sequences of human interaction.

They include Elster 1989, 1999; Stinchcombe 1991; Bunge 1997; Hedström and Swedberg

1998; Steel 2004; Mayntz 2004; Gerring 2008, 2010; Falleti and Lynch 2009; Hedström and

Ylikoski 2010; Grzymala-Busse 2011.

They include Wendt 1987; Hollis and Smith 1991; Dessler 1991; Tilly 2001; George and Ben-

nett 2005; Bennett and Elman 2006; Checkel 2006; Gehring and Oberthür 2009; for concrete ap-

plications see Young 1999; James 2004; Blatter 2009.

As many as 25 methodological surveys are listed in Gerring 2008, Footnote 3.

Another subcategory of social pathways, apart from causal mechanisms, is process patterns.

They can be understood as recurrent sequences of human interaction that are observed prior to

the specification of social domains over which empirical generalizations may be postulated. The

analytical advantage of process patterns is that they can be used heuristically to examine recur-

rent sequences that are observed in similar form over any number of social domains.

This opens a promising methodological route for research design and empirical research. Insofar

as similar processes occur in different social domains, International Relations (IR) scholars can

profitably apply the notion of process patterns to engage in innovative projects of transdiscipli-

nary research and collaboration. Some transdisciplinary research in this vein is already taking

place, but the notion of process patterns is needed to recognize if for what it actually is.

The article starts off with a succinct survey of the relevant methodological literature to suggest

that social pathways are indeed the wider category within which both causal mechanism and oth-

er forms of recurrent sequences such as process patterns have their place. In the next section, I

present the most typical usage of social pathways as causal mechanisms. Causal mechanisms are

conventionally understood as recurrent social pathways taking place within the “black boxes”

that separate input factors from output factors, or independent variables from dependent va-

riables, in a given empirical generalization. Thus understood, they are rightly seen as an indis-

pensible causal supplement to conventional modes of empirical generalization such as the hypo-

thetic-deductive or the variable-oriented approach. Without an identifiable mechanism, covering

laws and statistical correlations are spurious and cannot be interpreted as causal.

Subsequently, I present process patterns as a methodological alternative to causal mechanisms

that holds particular promise for transdisciplinary research and collaboration. The beauty about

process patterns is that they can be used heuristically to examine recurrent sequences of human

interaction that may occur in similar form over any number of social domains. As a conse-

quence, research investigating process patterns is likely to cross the boundaries of established

academic disciplines. IR scholars have traditionally been reluctant to engage in transdisciplinary

research because international anarchy was supposed to make IR radically different from other

academic fields. More recently, however, there is decreasing emphasis of anarchy as a marker of

radical difference from other disciplines. While it is certainly still true that transdisciplinary re-

search needs to be sensitive to field-specific contextual differences, it has thus become more de-

sirable for IR scholars. In this regard, process patterns offer an attractive methodological route to

open IR to transdisciplinary research and collaboration across established academic fields.

Despite the absence of an explicit methodological apparatus, to which the present research note

hopes to contribute, there have been several research programs dedicated to process patterns

avant la lettre. In the final section, I use these examples from research practice to illustrate how

concrete applications of the proposed methodology may look like in empirical research.

In sum, transdisciplinary scholarship can greatly benefit from understanding social pathways not

only in terms of causal mechanisms but also in terms of process patterns. This is not to say that

there is anything wrong with using causal mechanisms as an explanatory tool for thinking “with-

in the box” and testing empirical generalizations for causality, but the study of process patterns

as a heuristic device for thinking “without the box” is arguably even more promising insofar as it

offers the scholar a unique opportunity for transdisciplinary research and collaboration.

Conceptual critique 

In substantive research and methodological reviews, social pathways are mostly equated with

causal mechanisms. There is limited understanding that the notion of causal mechanisms does

not fully cover the gamut of legitimate research practices related to recurrent sequences of hu-

man interaction. Unfortunately, however, reducing social pathways to causal mechanisms oc-

cludes other promising avenues for social scientific research such as the study of process pat-

terns, generative mechanisms, and evolutionary pathways. What we have here is a typical case of

conceptual stretching4: a notion, in this case causal mechanisms, is extended as if it could cover a

wider category, in this case social pathways. As we shall see, however, there are promising un-

derstandings of social pathways that are neither mechanistic nor causal.

Take for example the excellent review article by John Gerring, which carries the title “The me-

chanismic worldview: thinking inside the box”.5 In this article, Gerring detects nine different

meanings of the term “mechanism” and concludes that the core of the concept is “the pathway or

process by which an effect is produced”. This minimal definition represents the common deno-

minator extrapolated from the various ways in which causal mechanisms had been understood in

an impressive list of pre-existing overviews and methodological surveys.6

In a later article, Gerring concludes that causal mechanisms “are not at variance with traditional

practices in the social sciences and thus hardly qualify as a distinct approach to causal assess-

Sartori 1970.

Gerring 2008.

Gerring 2008, Footnote 3.

ment”.7 He does recognize considerable diversity in the understanding of causal mechanisms,

and he notes that “writers have quite difficult things in mind when they invoke the mantra of me-

chanisms”.8 Nevertheless, based on his understanding of causal mechanisms as “thinking inside

the box”, he sees them a secondary element of causal analysis. The reason is that Gerring cannot

see any “sharp point of contrast between ‘mechanismic’ and ‘covariational’ social science”.9

This is understandable. But is it also compelling? If we take as a baseline the glossary of 24 defi-

nitions of “mechanism” provided by Mahoney, it turns out that Gerring’s minimal definition is

compatible with many but not all pre-existing definitions.10 Most of the definitions listed by Ma-

honey can in fact be subsumed under Gerring’s minimal definition. An example is Kiser and

Hechter, who characterize causal mechanisms as describing “the process by which one variable

influences the other, in other words, how it is that X produces Y”.11 Another example is the se-

minal introduction by Hedström and Swedberg, where causal mechanisms are defined as “analyt-

ical constructs that provide hypothetical links between observable events”.12

While these and similar definitions are compatible with Gerring’s minimal definition, others are

not. Most notably, Jon defines mechanisms as “frequently occurring and easily recognizable

Gerring 2010, 1499.

Gerring 2010, 1501.

Gerring 2010, 1505.

See Mahoney 2001, 579-580.

Kiser and Hechter 1991, 5.

Hedström and Swedberg 1998, 13.

causal patterns that are triggered under generally unknown conditions or with indeterminate con-

sequences”.13 Insofar as conditions are unknown and consequences indeterminate, such mechan-

isms cannot be reduced to Gerring’s minimal definition. In practice, this would suggest that the

study of mechanisms cannot or should not be reduced to the “mechanismic” exploration of caus-

al links between explanans and explanandum in given “black boxes”.

Gerring is certainly right that most social scientists invoking causal mechanisms try to think “in-

side the box”. However, there seems to be a conservative bias in his procedure of deriving a mi-

nimal definition.14 Minimal definitions are based on the lowest common denominator of prevail-

ing discursive usages of a concept, excluding “idiosyncratic” outliers. Prior to the triumph of

Copernican cosmology, for example, the centrality of the earth would have been at the core of

any minimal definition of what cosmologists had been doing for centuries. Heliocentric cosmol-

ogy would not have been seen as falling under the definition. As a result, the most innovative

usages of a concept are curtailed with the predictable conclusion that there is nothing new under

the sun (as Gerring has indeed concluded in a recent article15).

To avoid such conservative bias, let me adopt a more innovation-friendly approach to defining

key scientific concepts. Instead of extrapolating a minimal definition from which contextual de-

finitions are then allowed to branch out to some limited extent, I propose the stipulation of a

broad framework definition within which maximum diversity of contextual definitions remains

possible. Such diversity should include ample scope for dissenting and minority positions.

Elster 1999, 1.

See Gerring and Barresi 2003.

Gerring 2010.

In the case under discussion, let me suggest that causal mechanisms are a dominant subcategory

rather than the category itself. For the main category, I propose the term “social pathways”. In

fact, it is no accident that existing terminology varies between “causal mechanisms”, “social me-

chanisms”, “generative mechanisms”, “mechanism-based explanations”, “evolutionary path-

ways”, etc. Such lexical variation indicates diverse understandings in applied research. As we

shall see in the remainder of this article, it does make a practical difference which understanding

of social pathways a researcher subscribes to. This is exemplified by the contrast between causal

mechanisms (“thinking within the box”) and process patterns (“thinking without the box”).

In short, I propose a more open conceptualization to allow for more diversity (see Fig. 1). Since

the term “causal mechanisms” is too narrow as a common denominator, I propose the broader

concept of “social pathways” as an umbrella. Social pathways can be broadly understood as re-

current processes of human interaction that are invoked by the researcher to support descriptive

inference and/or causal explanation. This framework definition remains open to different usages

in research practice, including but not limited to causal mechanisms and process patterns.


Social pathways

Causal Mechanisms Process patterns Other usages

Figure 1

Thinking within the box 

Social pathways are frequently seen as the “nuts and bolts”, or “cogs and wheels”, in what would

otherwise be erratic “black boxes” separating observable inputs from observable outputs of em-

pirical generalizations.16 In this function, social pathways are typically termed “causal mechan-

isms”. This particular understanding of social pathways as causal mechanisms has also been re-

ferred to as the “I-M-O” (Input-Mechanism-Output) model of explanation.17 The idea is that,

when specified initial conditions (or independent variables) are empirically associated with

specified outcomes (or dependent variables), causality cannot be assumed unless a mechanism is

shown to intervene in what would otherwise be the black box separating inputs from outputs.

The “I-M-O” model of explanation works for both the conventional hypothetic-deductive model

of theory testing and for the variable-oriented model of statistical inference. In the former, me-

chanisms link inputs and outputs by plausible causal accounts and thus establish causality for

covering laws. In the latter, they similarly connect independent and dependent variables and thus

eliminate the risk that a statistical correlation may be spurious rather than causal.

Either way, causal mechanisms are seen as a crucial supplement to empirical generalizations.

The point is that, after identifying a covering law or a co-variation between variables, the “black

box” must be opened in order to see if input and output are causally connected. Otherwise, it is

impossible to know whether or not causality is actually at work in an observed regularity.

Elster 1989, 3.

Hedström and Swedberg 1998, 9.

“Discovering correlations between assumed causes and effects is not good enough.

Explaining means showing how a cause leads to an effect. Barometers are sensitive

to weather changes. But to explain varying barometer readings, we need to explain

the impact of air pressure on mercury. Democracies do not seem to fight each other.

But saying that democratic domestic structures explain peace among democracies is

unsatisfactory. It needs to be shown, for example, how parliaments and civil society

groups scrutinize executives and thereby reduce the likelihood of war. Saying that

smoking kills is a superficial statement. To explain why many smokers die prema-

turely, the effects of nicotine on lungs and other body parts need to be revealed”.18

To do this sort of analysis, a researcher first needs a population or sample composed by onto-

logically equivalent entities (mercury barometers; democracies; tobacco smokers). Next, the re-

searcher derives a tentative empirical generalization. This typically takes the form of a covering

law, correlation between variables, probabilistic statement, or statement of necessary and/or suf-

ficient causation.19 Finally, the researcher opens the black box to see if there is a causal mechan-

ism linking input and output, independent and dependent variables, stochastic events, or causal

conditions and outcome. The systematic search for such causal linkages is conventionally re-

ferred to as “process tracing”.20

Daase and Friesendorf 2010, 12.

Ragin 1987, 2000; Rihoux and Ragin 2009.

See George and Bennett 2005. It is perhaps important to note that process tracing can support

not only positivist but also interpretive research (Vennesson 2008).

Causal mechanisms can thus be broadly understood as recurrent processes of social interaction

generating a specific kind of outcome, given specified initial conditions. By identifying such

processes, it becomes possible to find what underlies observed regularities and thus evaluate cau-

sality empirically.21 From this perspective, “causal reconstruction” starts with an empirical gen-

eralization about a specific population or sample of cases, and subsequently identifies the

mechanism(s) that deterministically or probabilistically produce the outcome.22 At least strictly

speaking, scholars applying this analytical template are not entitled to make causal statements

unless they find appropriate causal mechanisms within their “black boxes”.

In principle, there is of course nothing wrong with causal mechanisms. On the contrary, they are

an enormously valuable antidote against the spurious attribution of causality to observed regu-

larities between input-factors and output-factors. However, it is easy to understand why causal

mechanisms are not particularly friendly to transdisciplinary research and collaboration. Insofar

as their analysis presupposes an empirical generalization over a specified social domain, cross-

fertilization between substantively different areas of research is not very likely to occur.

Critics sometimes object that causal mechanisms are nothing more than a short-hand for tem-

poral sequences of “intervening variables”. But this is not convincing, as causal mechanisms

may not be linear. For example, there may be interaction effects and iterative feedback loops.

Mayntz 2004, 244.

Thinking without the box 

Let us now for a moment forget the notion of using causal mechanisms as explanatory tools to

unpack empirical “black boxes” and revert to the more general, underlying notion of social

pathways as recurrent processes of human interaction. To demarcate our shift of attention away

from the causal and mechanistic understanding of social pathways, let us use the term “process

patterns” for recurrent sequences of human interaction that are observed prior to the specification

of social domains over which empirical generalizations can be postulated.

Here are a couple of examples to clarify this alternative understanding of social pathways.

 What do the following three situations have in common: a panic in a theatre; a bank run;

and the famous race to the bottom after the world economic crisis of 1929?

 Again, what do the following three situations have in common: mobbing an ambitious

colleague; bullying a nerd; and a smear campaign against an incorruptible politician?

Even without having stated an empirical generalization over a specified social domain, we are

capable as intelligent human beings of realizing that either of these two types of processes fol-

lows a specific underlying pattern. We do not need an empirical generalization over a specified

social domain before we can open, as it were, the “black box” and identify a mechanism to con-

firm that causality is at work. Instead, we can suspend causal-mechanistic thinking altogether

and take patterned regularities in social processes as the heuristic starting point of our analysis.

What I am proposing is a methodological shift from population-based to pattern-based case se-

lection; and from variable-driven to process-driven research.23 Instead of drawing a sample from

See cf. Rescher 1996; Jackson and Nexon 1999.

an ontologically given population such as “states” or “ inter-state wars”, we can think of the un-

iverse of process patterns of a particular kind as constituting a universe of cases.

This turns the usual procedure on its head. In population-based case selection and variable-driven

research, the researcher typically starts with a population of ontological givens, draws a sample,

derives empirical generalizations in terms of variables, and seeks to identify causal mechanisms.

In pattern-based case selection and process-driven research, the researcher starts with an ontolog-

ically thinner categorization, namely an observed process pattern that constitutes a universe of

potential cases across any number of ontological domains. Sampling will then follow pragmatic

criteria, with the cases selected revealing as much interesting variation as possible. The analyti-

cal objective is to arrive at a fully explicit articulation of the observed social regularity.

Harking back to the first example above, let us take the process pattern whereby self-regarding

behavior is collectively self-defeating in that its private pursuit reinforces the propensity of oth-

ers to engage in the same kind of self-regarding behavior, thus leading to the worst possible out-

come for everybody. It is easy to see that, apart from the process pattern they share in common,

the universe of cases based on this pattern is not composed of ontologically homogenous entities.

You would never put theatre panics, bank runs, and the world economic crisis of 1929 into the

same basket unless you had a prior understanding of the process pattern at work in all of these

cases. But once you have constituted such a pattern-based population, you can sample from it in

various ways and set in motion a procedure of systematic comparative research.

On the basis of a sample constructed from the universe of possible cases, you are then able to ask

meaningful questions such as: What do all manifestations of the process pattern have in com-

mon, what are the specificities of particular sub-sets, and what are the idiosyncrasies of individu-

al cases? Which role do context, actor constellations, and trigger events play?24 Are there any

discontinuities or path dependencies? What determines if and when a discontinuity kicks in, or if

the pattern goes down one path rather than another? How does all of this affect the outcome?

Causal propositions can emerge from the study of process patterns, but at its core the analysis of

process patterns is an exercise in descriptive inference. By comparing equivalent processes

across different social domains, the researcher finds intrinsic connections across various strands

of the social world. This is a valuable accomplishment in and by itself. In addition to that, proc-

ess patterns have causative force. They can be translated into causal mechanisms whenever they

follow specific trigger events, occur in specific contexts, and lead to specific outcomes. Thus, the

study of process patterns makes it possible to proceed from descriptive to causal inference.

This heuristic research strategy, which starts from process patterns and then systematically stud-

ies them in different social settings, is particularly well-suited to support pragmatic transdiscipli-

nary research. It uniquely enables the researcher to detect regularities across disparate realms of

the social world and thus to generate knowledge that can “travel”.25 How far a specific process

pattern can travel is ultimately an empirical question. Equivalent process patterns can sometimes

be extrapolated from one setting to another, and across different levels of analysis.26 By the same

token, it is a matter of empirical research to find at what level(s) of abstraction a process pattern

is heuristically most useful. A process pattern formulated in a more abstract way will travel fur-

ther than one specified more concretely. Depending on how far a process pattern is to travel, the

On context, see Falleti and Lynch 2009. On actor constellations, see Scharpf 1997.

Sartori 1970.

Steel 2007.

researcher is going to formulate and reformulate its definition and thus the criteria for inclusion

in the case sample. Thus the constitution of conceptual categories, and thereby the case sample,

is a purposeful and open-ended scholarly activity.27

Concrete examples 

Despite the fact that in methodological writing social pathways have mostly been reduced to

causal mechanisms, in research practice there have been highly interesting contributions in the

transdisciplinary spirit of pattern-based case selection and process-based research. Due to the

high potential and remarkable appeal of these contributions, the reduction of social pathways to

causal mechanisms should be reconsidered. As the following concrete examples from research

practice suggest, the study of process patterns is a highly rewarding task for the social scientist

(my treatment of these examples is necessarily sketchy and serves illustrative purposes only).

To begin with, game theorists have identified the emergence of “tit for tat” behavior as a recur-

rent phenomenon in situations of iterated prisoner’s dilemmas. Robert Axelrod mentions phe-

nomena as disparate as stickleback fish and divorcing women as cases where the emergence of

“tit for tat” can be observed.28 Although he does not use the term “process pattern”, he is talking

about a pattern with an extraordinary ability to travel across the most divergent areas of the so-

cial world, from the animal kingdom to international relations.

Cf. the pragmatic research strategy of abduction, outlined in Friedrichs and Kratochwil 2009.

Axelrod 1997, 5-6; 1984.

Likewise, complex systems theory and agent-based modelling examine recurrent features of so-

cial life such as adaptive behaviour and cybernetic feedback loops.29 This amounts to the study

of process patterns rather than causal mechanisms in the conventional sense. The core finding of

complex system theory is that the social world is of mind-boggling complexity, but even in the

most chaotic systems there are emergent structures, or islands of order. Agent-based modelling

provides a useful tool to get a handle over such complexity.30 From the viewpoint of complex

systems theory and agent-based modelling, the best way for the researcher to proceed is to take

process patterns as starting points and explore as much as possible around them.

Finally, another hotbed of pattern-based theorizing, in the tradition of Merton’s middle-range

theories, is the academic movement of analytical sociology.31 The classical exemplar of analyti-

cal sociology is Merton’s middle-range theory about self-fulfilling prophesies. 32 While self-

fulfilling and self-negating prophesies are indeed observed over any number of social domains,

their relevance for International Relations has been clearly demonstrated.33 There are many other

fields where International Relations scholars could collaborate with analytical sociologists.

Axelrod 1997; Cederman 1997.

Hedström and Ylikoski 2010, 62-64.

Hedström and Bearman 2009; see also Manzo 2010.

See Biggs 2009.

Houghton 2009.

This can be exemplified by the social practice of denial. Denial – or the practice of treating a real

problem as a nonissue – is a ubiquitous social and psychological phenomenon.34 Any kind of

problem, from personal trauma to global challenges such as climate change, can be obfuscated

by denial. Denial can be seen when an individual disavows a terminal illness. It can also be stud-

ied in social constellations, from the denial of marital infidelity to the denial of race discrimina-

tion. There are political cases of denial, for example when a nation state such as Turkey denies

genocide.35 Denial is even found at the global level, where humankind is in denial of the fact that

infinite growth on a finite planet is impossible.36 Although, or precisely because, denial occurs in

virtually any social domain, the process patterns associated with it can be systematically studied.

The simplest and most straightforward case of denial is when a permanent problem is disavowed.

In such cases, folk wisdom has it that ““If we can do something to solve the problem, we will

perhaps do it. If there is nothing we can do, we should try to ignore the problem.” The reason is

that, while denial of course does not solve the problem itself, it does reduce the social costs of

admitting it. An example from IR the way post-war Japan has traditionally handled the interna-

tional stigma from the atrocities committed during the Asia-Pacific War. With due care, this can

be compared to the disavowal of permanent problems in any other social domain, e.g. the way

the Nixon Administration initially handled the Watergate affair, or the way liberal white Austra-

lia has been ignoring until recently the suffering inflicted on the Aborigines. In all of these cases

Goleman 1985; Cohen 2001; Zerubavel 2006.

Alayarian 2008.

Meadows et al. 2004.

denial may be morally objectionable, but it is easy to see how the deniers have been consciously

or (more likely) unconsciously serving their perceived self-interest by denying the problem.

A more pathological case is the denial of escalating problems, i.e. problems that spiral out of

control until a certain tolerance level is reached. For example, during the years leading up to the

2008 financial meltdown whistleblowers criticizing the lack of market regulation were invariably

ignored by national and international public servants. Or, to cite another example, up until the

Euro crisis of 2010/11 there was a regime of silence in public circles around the fairly obvious

way Greece had concealed its lack of fiscal austerity in order to enter the European Monetary

Union. The same process pattern also occurs at the domestic level, e.g. in some of Europe’s age-

ing societies where the unsustainability of the public pension system is blissfully overlooked.

Another case in point may be the way Hitler and his stalwarts believed in victory to the bitter

end. Apart from the social pathologies associated with the denial of permanent problems, the de-

nial of escalating problems invariably leads to tragedy because, with the wisdom of hindsight, it

usually turns out that some action could or should have been taken at some earlier point in time.

However, such action usually does not happen due to the ominous effects of denial.37

For the methodological purposes of this article, the key point is that process patterns such as de-

nial can be systematically studied at any level of social aggregation, and over a wide range of

academic disciplines. While IR scholars often struggle with the problem that in empirical re-

search they can mobilize only a limited number of cases that does not allow for robust generali-

This is a highly simplified representation of the framework developed in Friedrichs 2011a un-

der review. For an application of the framework to the global problems of peak energy and cli-

mate change see Friedrichs 2011b.

zation, organizing cross-disciplinary research programmes around observable process patterns

could effectively circumvent this problem and enable a true methodological breakthrough.


It is interesting to note that a decade after conceptualizing causal mechanisms as the nuts and

bolts, or cogs and wheels, of social science,38 Jon Elster gave up the notion of black boxes and

defined causal mechanisms as “frequently occurring and easily recognizable causal patterns that

are triggered under generally unknown conditions or with indeterminate consequences”.39 This

revised notion does not sound at all mechanistic, and the word “causal” seems almost redundant.

I have taken this a step further, suggesting the alternative notion of process patterns as heuristic

devices to identify islands of order in a profoundly chaotic social world.

The study of social pathways as recurrent processes of social interaction can support a variety of

research strategies. In this research note, I have highlighted only two of them: causal mechan-

isms and process patterns. While causal mechanisms are a necessary supplement to conventional

strategies of empirical generalization, the underlying notion of social pathways is far more open

than this. There is no reason to reduce social pathways to causal mechanisms linking the inputs

and outputs of “black boxes”. As an alternative to starting with empirical generalizations which

are then supplemented by mechanisms as a test for causality, research can start off with the iden-

Elster 1989.

Elster 1999, 1.

tification of specific process patterns. It is then an open empirical question how far these patterns

can travel, and whether they take the form of causal mechanisms in more specific settings.

The passage from causal mechanisms to process patterns implies a shift from population-based

to pattern-based case selection; and from variable-driven to process-driven research. While it is

certainly appropriate in many situations to rely on causal mechanisms as an explanatory tool, it is

often more fruitful to deal with process patterns as heuristic devices. There are two key reasons

why process patterns hold particular promise as a methodology. First, they offer a unique oppor-

tunity for transdisciplinary research and collaboration. Second, they invite us to a more open-

ended research process. We are more likely to experience surprises, and genuinely learn from our

research, if we map out recurrent social processes first; and only then explore over which social

domains they apply, and if and how they can be embedded in causal models and frameworks.


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