Achieving effective, sustainable environmental governance requires a better understanding of the causes and consequences of the complex patterns of interdependencies connecting people and ecosystems within and across scales. Network approaches for conceptualizing and analysing these interdependencies offer one promising solution. Here, we present two advances we argue are needed to further this area of research: (i) a typology of causal assumptions explicating the causal aims of any given network-centric study of social–ecological interdependencies; (ii) unifying research design considerations that facilitate conceptualizing exactly what is interdependent, through what types of relationships and in relation to what kinds of environmental problems. The latter builds on the appreciation that many environmental problems draw from a set of core challenges that re-occur across contexts. We demonstrate how these advances combine into a comparative heuristic that facilitates leveraging case-specific findings of social–ecological interdependencies to generalizable, yet context-sensitive, theories based on explicit assumptions of causal relationships.