Explaining and understanding

A central theoretical debate within studies of international relations has been between understanding and explaining. The basic idea of seeking to explain has been to find causal mechanisms and relationships in a positivist tradition, while understanding follows a post-positivist tradition with a goal of recovering the shared meanings and interests that have motivated social actors.8 With such terminology, this dissertation project is best described as an effort to understand the ACIA. However, I argue that all efforts to explain do not have to adhere to positivist assumptions and methodology and that all explanations are not causal. As laid out by Wendt, attention to structural circumstances and constitutive theories can also provide explanations in that they highlight essential features of a system. Concepts that capture structural characteristics, such as regime, are thus partly descriptive but also seek to explain by making visible dispositions and propensities to behave in certain ways under certain conditions.9 My usage of the word explain and any ambitions to explain knowledge production in relation to structures in international society stem from this latter view.

My understanding of explaining is also linked to a constructivist tradition in international relations that highlights reasons why people act certain ways as potential causes.10 Norms and rules can thus cause an event by providing actors with direction and goals. To establish causality in this context is quite a different endeavor than the hypothesis testing that is common in many natural sciences and other fields working in a positivist tradition. As Adler lays out, it relies heavily on detailed historical narratives that can be used to specify time-bounded sequences and relationships between circumstances and the phenomena we want to explain.11 This theoretical underpinning fits well with using a single case study as the empirical basis for my analysis.

When explanations and causes are context specific, they can not a priori be expected to apply to other cases. My ambition to draw conclusions about the potential for other regional climate impact assessments should therefore not be interpreted as an attempt to predict, but as a way to highlight mechanisms that might also be important in other cases. To what extent that these mechanisms are general needs to be judged against the available literature and future case studies.

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