A range of causal questions

In considering important issues in the philosophy of the special sciences, I think it is always helpful to consider a variety of the kinds of intellectual challenges that arise in the area. This gives the philosopher something to work with — not simply an apriori specification of an issue, but a nuanced set of examples.

So if we are interested in causal reasoning in the social sciences, we ought to pay attention to the kinds of causal questions that social scientists actually want to answer. Let’s consider a range of causal questions that have arisen within historical and comparative sociology. In considering these examples, we should reflect on the types of analysis that would provide a satisfactory response to the question, and also the modes of research that would support an empirical response to the question.

  • What causes ethnic violence (Horowitz 1985)?
  • What caused ethnic violence in Rwanda?
  • What caused twentieth-century revolutions (Wolf 1969)?
  • What caused the Nicaraguan revolution?
  • Why did revolution unfold as it did in the Canton Delta in 1911 (Hsieh 1974)?
  • What factors enhance the likelihood of successful democratization (Przeworski 1991; Przeworski et al. 1996)?
  • What causes urban residential segregation (Schelling 1978)?
  • What causes political corruption (Klitgaard 1988)?
  • What factors explain the success or failure of anti-corruption reforms (Klitgaard 1988)?
  • What factors explain the East Asian economic miracle (Vogel 1991)?
  • Why are there more violent crimes per 1000 in the US than Western Europe?
  • Why was the political party of labor more successful in the UK than the US (Przeworski 1985)?
  • Why is infant mortality significantly lower in Sri Lanka than Brazil or Egypt (Drèze and Sen 1989, 1995)?
  • Why do millenarian cults occur in the post-colonial world (Adas 1979)?
  • Why was agricultural technology stagnant in late imperial China (Elvin 1973)?
  • Why are rural people more politically conservative than urban people?
  • Why do social tastes and styles change as they do (Lieberson 2000)?
  • Why did the name “Joshua” lose frequency in the United States in the 1990s (Lieberson 2000)?
  • Why did the New England Patriots win the 2003 Super Bowl (Lieberson 1997)?
  • Why did the political culture of corporations remain powerful among French workers in the 19th century (Sewell 1980)?
  • Why did the heavy wheeled plough diffuse in the geographical pattern that it did in medieval France (Bloch 1966)?
  • How did the socialist and republican parties of Spain mobilize the lower working class in support of their programs?
  • How did the Solidarity Movement in Poland preserve its organization in face of state repression in the 1980s?
  • Was the fact of skewed sex ratios in rural China a necessary condition for the occurrence of banditry and rebellion? Was this fact a contributing condition?
  • Why was there no broad-based militant movement of the poor in the United States during the Great Depression?
  • Why do restaurants commonly add a gratuity of 18% for parties of 6 or more?

We can learn a great deal about causal inquiry by reflecting briefly on a number of these examples. There is a common thread among these examples, in that each topic directs inquiry towards the question, “What are the causal conditions that give rise to a given social or historical outcome?” But there are a number of important differences among these examples as well. Some are about a category of outcome (“twentieth-century revolution” or “ethnic violence”), whereas others are about a historically specific outcome (the Nicaraguan revolution, the Rwandan genocide, the 2003 Super Bowl). Some are about large and publicly salient events, structures, and mentalities (states, revolutions, political cultures); others are about small-scale and unnoticed social characteristics (the frequency of first names). And there are numerous other nuances that emerge from consideration of these examples.

In each case it is a promising research strategy to attempt to discover the underlying social mechanisms that give rise to the outcome — none of these examples suggests a purely statistical approach to the problem. So inquiry into the “microfoundations” of the causal relations that are uncovered is needed. And second, many of these examples suggest research approaches that make use of the methods of comparative historical sociology and case-study methodology. The techniques of “process-tracing” and small-N comparison of cases should help to arrive at empirically supportable theories of the causal relations that underlie these groups of phenomena.

Adas, Michael. 1979. Prophets of rebellion : millenarian protest movements against the European colonial order. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Bloch, Marc Léopold Benjamin. 1966. French rural history; an essay on its basic characteristics. Berkeley,: University of California Press.
Drèze, Jean, and Amartya Kumar Sen. 1989. Hunger and public action. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
———. 1995. India, economic development and social opportunity. Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Elvin, Mark. 1973. The Pattern of the Chinese Past. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Horowitz, Donald L. 1985. Ethnic Groups in Conflict. Berkeley, California: University of California Press.
Hsieh, Winston. 1974. Peasant Insurrection and the Marketing Hierarchy in the Canton Delta, 1911. In The Chinese City Between Two Worlds, edited by M. Elvin and G. W. Skinner.
Klitgaard, Robert E. 1988. Controlling corruption. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Lieberson, Stanley. 1997. Modeling Social Processes: Some Lessons from Sports. Sociological Forum 12 (1):11-35.
———. 2000. Matter of taste : how names, fashions, and culture change. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Przeworski, Adam. 1985. Capitalism and Social Democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
———. 1991. Democracy and the Market: Political and Economic Reforms in Eastern Europe and Latin America, Studies in Rationality and Social Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Przeworski, Adam, Michael Alvarez, Jose Antonio Cheibub, and Fernando Limongi. 1996. What makes democracies endure? Journal of Democracy 7 (1).
Schelling, Thomas C. 1978. Micromotives and Macrobehavior. New York: Norton.
Sewell, William Hamilton. 1980. Work and revolution in France : the language of labor from the Old Regime to 1848. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press.
Vogel, Ezra F. 1991. The Four Little Dragons: The Spread of Industrialization in East Asia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Wolf, Eric R. 1969. Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century. New York: Harper & Row.

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