2 - Modes of context  pp. 14-33

Modes of context

By Gary Goertz

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Unavoidable mention of causality is a cloak for ignorance; we must appeal to the notion of cause when we lack detailed and accurate laws. In the analysis of action, mention of causality takes up some of the slack between analysis and science.

Donald Davidson (1980, p. 80)


A central debate in international relations has been which level of analysis is most important in explaining nation-state behavior. Some like Waltz (1979) argue that system structure plays the largest role in the explanation of war. Others (Bueno de Mesquita and Lalman 1988) claim that explanation must come at the state level of analysis. In contrast to this classic opposition I would like to begin by asking not which level is most important but how contexts matter – what I call the modes of context.

Usually this “how” is not an issue, the objective is to get as quickly as possible to the central substantive issues: the independent and dependent variables. All-purpose causal glue cements the independent variables – at whatever level – to the dependent variables. Context is just another element of an explanation, either an independent or dependent variable. The contrast between context as cause and the other modes of context forces us to specify what we mean by cause. The major thesis of this chapter is that there are different types of conceptual glue which we can use to build contextual models.