Approaches and terminology for causal analysis in land systems science


Research into land and social-ecological systems science could benefit from improved clarity in the terminology used for causal analysis and a structured way to make causal inferences. Here I identify two aspects of causality, i.e. causal effects and causal mechanisms, and discuss explanation in historical sciences. I then propose definitions for the major terms used for causal relations, including driver, (spatial) determinant, location and contextual factor, proximate and underlying factors. Finally, I discuss the contribution of various operational approaches, including time series and counterfactual approaches for assessing causal effects and process-tracing approaches for establishing causal mechanisms. Having a coherent concept of causality, agreeing on a precise vocabulary and harnessing our tools with the clear purpose of establishing both causal effects and causal mechanisms should strengthen causal explanations for single cases, for drawing policy-relevant lessons and for theoretical development in relation to land and, more broadly, social-ecological systems processes.

Journal of Land Use Science
Patrick Meyfroidt
Patrick Meyfroidt
Professor of Land Systems and Sustainability Science

My research focuses on how land systems can contribute to sustainability.