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Conjunctures and Assemblages: Approaches to Multicausal Explanation in the Human Sciences

Critical Realism, History, and Philosophy in the Social Sciences

ISBN: 978-1-78756-604-0, eISBN: 978-1-78756-603-3

ISSN: 0198-8719

Publication date: 27 July 2018


This chapter suggests that moving beyond positivism entails a recognition that the social world is made up of complex phenomena that are heterogeneous, and events are caused by contingent conjunctures of causal mechanisms. To theorize the social world as heterogeneous is to recognize that social causes, categories, and groups combine different kinds of phenomena and processes at various levels and scales across time. To speak of conjunctural causation implies not only that events are caused by concatenations of multiple, intersecting forces but also that these combinations are historically unique and nonrepeatable. Both the historical materialist conception of the “conjuncture” and the poststructuralist theory of “assemblages” take heterogeneity and multicausality seriously. I compare and contrast these formulations across three dimensions: the structure of the apparatus, causation, and temporality. I argue that these theories offer useful tools to social scientists seeking to engage in complex, multicausal explanations. I end the article with an example of how to use these concepts in analyzing a complex historical case.




I would like to thank the members of my reading group in Science, Knowledge, and Culture at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who faithfully read with me theories of assemblages and conjunctures over the entire course of 2015–2016. Their input has been invaluable to the analysis made in this paper. I would also like to thank Andy Clarno, Isaac Reed, Paige Sweet, and Timothy Rutzou for feedback on earlier versions of this paper. Earlier drafts of this paper were presented at the Symposium on Philosophy, History, and Social Science at the University of Michigan in September 2016 and at the Beyond Positivism Conference held in Montreal, Canada, in August 2017. Two anonymous reviewers for Political Power and Social Theory made suggestions that have greatly improved the analysis in the paper.


Decoteau, C.L. (2018), "Conjunctures and Assemblages: Approaches to Multicausal Explanation in the Human Sciences", Critical Realism, History, and Philosophy in the Social Sciences (Political Power and Social Theory, Vol. 34), Emerald Publishing Limited, Bingley, pp. 89-118.



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