As we try to identify the causal arguments in scholars' analyses, we want to start with the basics. Let us do our best to keep it simple and clear.
Here are some steps to consider. We go about our intellectual work in different ways, so we cannot all follow the same formula to success. Still, being systematic is usually a good idea.
- What is it that the analysis is trying to explain? It is a good idea to write this down as clearly as possible. Whatever is being explained must vary: we are trying to explain why there is more or less of it, why it occurs some places but not others, when it appears rather than alternatives, or the like. We need to specify what is the variation that we are trying to explain; to do so we must clearly specify what varies. We want to have some idea over what range of empirical circumstances the explanation seeks to explain this variation (it is different, for example, to explain variations in crime rates across neighborhoods in New York City today than variation in NYC crime over time). We also commonly want to say how one determines what outcome occurs (it is difficult to explain a variation one cannot measure). Note that for some explanations, the alternative outcome may be a hypothetical possibility that never occurs-this happens in particular when we try to explain something we believe is universal (for example, we might seek to explain a claim that all societies produce deviance, where the alternative of a deviance-free society is considered a hypothetical condition that does not exist). It is commonly a good idea to express the key causal issue as a "why" or "how" question. For example, "how does the development of private ownership of productive property change gender inequality?" Or, "why did crime rates decline greatly in NYC and other cities over the past two decades."
- What is the primary thing or things used as the starting point of the causal explanation, the beginning of the causal chain? This "thing" may take many forms, such as a kind of human action, a belief, a social process, or a historical condition. Whatever form it takes, it, like whatever is being explained must vary. It is a good idea to write a description of this key causal thing, and to ask if it meets the same conditions just mentioned for that which is being explained.
- The causal argument generally will seek to meet two major conditions. First, it must claim an empirical relationship between the variation of the cause and that of the outcome to be explained. If, for example, we sought to argue that poverty is a cause of crimes against property, we would want to ask if such crimes are higher in poorer countries, in poorer cities, or in poorer neighborhoods and if such crimes are committed more often by poorer people. And, assuming we had appropriate evidence about income and crime rates, we would want to face examples that might contradict the patterns, for example where poverty appeared to be associated with lower rather than higher rates of crime against property.
- The second condition commonly considered by social analyses of causes is the relevant causal mechanism. The variations in social outcomes (conditions, processes, events, beliefs, or other outcomes) reflect people acting differently. A mechanism identifies how the primary cause has its effects through the generation of action sequences in a population. Identifying mechanisms is not strictly required for a causal argument. We could claim, for example, that more people commit suicide during winter, showing that suicide rates vary with the temperature and amount of snow, while we admit we have no idea why this should happen. Still, we do not usually consider a causal theory complete or compelling unless it identifies a set of social mechanisms that seem adequate to account for the sequence of actions that produce the outcomes being explained.
- If you start with just the above four points, you should do well at this stage. To summarize, this includes
- identifying that being explained
- identifying the primary cause
- looking at the presumed joint variation of the cause and outcome
- looking at the social mechanisms that connect the causes and outcomes