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Non-linear causal modelling in social marketing for wicked problems

Christine Domegan (Department of Marketing, J.E. Cairnes School of Business and Economics, National University of Ireland, Galway, Galway, Ireland)
Patricia McHugh (Whitaker Institute, National University of Ireland, Galway, Galway, Ireland)
Brian Joseph Biroscak (Department of Emergency Medicine, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, Connecticut, USA)
Carol Bryant (Department of Community and Family Health, University of South Florida, Tampa, Florida, USA)
Tanja Calis (AquaTT, Dublin, Ireland)

Journal of Social Marketing

ISSN: 2042-6763

Article publication date: 10 July 2017




The purpose of this paper is to show how non-linear causal modelling knowledge, already accumulated by other disciplines, is central to unravelling wicked problem scoping and definition in social marketing.


The paper is an illustrative case study approach, highlighting three real-world exemplars of causal modelling for wicked problem definition.


The findings show how the traditional linear research methods of social marketing are not sensitive enough to the dynamics and complexities of wicked problems. A shift to non-linear causal modelling techniques and methods, using interaction as the unit of analysis, provides insight and understanding into the chains of causal dependencies underlying social marketing problems.

Research limitations/implications

This research extends the application of systems thinking in social marketing through the illustration of three non-linear causal modelling techniques, namely, collective intelligence, fuzzy cognitive mapping and system dynamics modelling. Each technique has the capacity to visualise structural and behavioural properties of complex systems and identify the central interactions driving behaviour.

Practical implications

Non-linear causal modelling methods provide a robust platform for practical manifestations of collaborative-based strategic projects in social marketing, when used with participatory research, suitable for micro, meso, macro or systems wide interventions.


The paper identifies non-linear causality as central to wicked problem scoping identification, documentation and analysis in social marketing. This paper advances multi-causal knowledge in the social marketing paradigm by using fuzzy, collective and interpretative methods as a bridge between linear and non-linear causality in wicked problem research.



Domegan, C., McHugh, P., Biroscak, B.J., Bryant, C. and Calis, T. (2017), "Non-linear causal modelling in social marketing for wicked problems", Journal of Social Marketing, Vol. 7 No. 3, pp. 305-329.



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Copyright © 2017, Emerald Publishing Limited

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