From Brexit to Article 50: Applying Critical Realism to the design and analysis of a longitudinal causal mapping study

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The UK’s journey from the Brexit referendum on 24th June 2016 until activating Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon on 29th March 2017 was turbulent. Through applying soft Operational Research (OR) tools within a Critical Realist (CR) philosophy we analyse 86 televised interviews with leading politicians conducted during these nine months, this study uses causal mapping to theorise the changing national narrative. We theorise that, compared to pre-referendum debates, the period was characterised by an inconsistent national narrative where the large volume of information shared did not create a clear message. The study used the philosophy and methodological creativity of CR to justify our development and analysis of causal maps without recourse to interviewees. We apply CR principles of DREI(C) to describe (D) the Brexit and data context, explain the causal mapping process and identify (I) causal generative mechanisms through a process of retroduction (R) to facilitate thematic analysis and develop our theory of the Brexit journey. This combination provides the framework to eliminate (E) and identify corrections (C) to the emerging theory through iterative abstraction. The contribution to soft OR is threefold. First, it shows how CR can justify a soft OR study where researcher creativity is central, thereby differing from interpretivist causal mapping where respondents are central. Second, it shows how DREI(C) can help conceptualise the process of analysing causal maps. Third, it shows how CR can provide a consistent philosophy for OR studies such as those which use researcher creativity to bridge hard and soft OR.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)723-735
Number of pages13
JournalEuropean Journal of Operational Research
Issue number2
Early online date18 Jan 2019
Publication statusPublished - 16 Jul 2019


  • Brexit
  • Causal mapping
  • Critical Realism
  • Longitudinal analysis
  • Soft Operational Research

Research Beacons, Institutes and Platforms

  • Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute
  • Dalton Nuclear Institute


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