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Causation in complex systems where human agency is in play

Byrne, David

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David Byrne


Conventional approaches to causation in the social sciences draw on approaches in the Philosophy of Science in which a causal force acts on cases and generates change in the form of events. This relies on just one of the Aristotelian conceptions of cause – efficient cause – what brings the effect in to being. We should also pay attention to Final Cause – purpose and Formal cause, what makes something what it is and no other.The somethings are complex far from equilbric socio-ecological systems in which human agency has causal powers. This resonates with the understanding of the nature of effect in the complexity frame of reference as the state of the system both in relation to stability and transformation of kind. Effects are systems states. The argument draws on Hegel’s and Dewey’s understandings of cause / effect relationships as not separable but intimately interwoven. Effects have continuing reciprocal impacts on causes themselves as in positive feedback in systems. This way of thinking about causation allows us to engage with macro social change. The argument will be illustrated by a discussion of the transformation from industrial to post-industrial character across port city regions in high income countries.


Byrne, D. (in press). Causation in complex systems where human agency is in play. International Journal of Social Research Methodology,

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Jan 20, 2023
Online Publication Date Feb 2, 2023
Deposit Date Feb 8, 2023
Publicly Available Date Feb 8, 2023
Journal International Journal of Social Research Methodology
Print ISSN 1364-5579
Electronic ISSN 1464-5300
Publisher Taylor and Francis Group
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed


Published Journal Article (709 Kb)

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Copyright Statement
© 2023 The Author(s). Published by Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group.<br /> This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives License (, which permits non-commercial re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited, and is not altered, transformed, or built upon in any way.

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