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date: 22 June 2017

Clarifying Causal Mechanisms in International Relations

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. Please check back later for the full article.

The essence of systemism is conveyed by its most longstanding exponent, Mario Bunge, through a commitment to building comprehensive theories. Systemism transcends individualism and holism as the other available “coherent views” with respect to operation of a social system. Rather than theorizing at the level of the system (holism) or its components (reductionism), systemism allows for linkages operating at macro- and micro-levels, with back and forth between them, and it facilitates comparison of alternative visions regarding cause and effect. Thus systemism is an approach rather than a substantive theory. One of its distinguishing merits is a capacity to facilitate criticism and comparison of theories through their representation in diagrams that are constructed under a set of strict rules to convey causal mechanisms.

Systemism will be implemented to assess the state of neoclassical realist theory. After ultimately disappointing results from structural realist theory, a significant number of scholars have turned toward the domestic level for ideas to complement the incomplete story told by realism in its macro-oriented or holistic variants. In the language of systemism, neoclassical realism turned away from strictly macro-macro theorizing toward a more comprehensive approach that added macro-micro causal mechanisms in particular. Given the accumulation of neoclassical realist theorizing, it is time to assess its progress from the standpoint of systemism. Is neoclassical realism logically consistent? Are clear and competing variants emerging as work continues? In sum, do respective neoclassical realist frameworks live up to the standards of systemism?