Notes on Causality and Explanation in the Social Sciences
Peter Taylor, July 1994
A. A base-line account of causality and explanation in
the social sciences
Drawn from R. W. Miller, `Fact and method in the social sciences', in R.
Boyd, P. Gasper, and J. D. Trout (ed.), The philosophy of science
(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991), 743-762, which is reprinted with revisions
from D. Sabia and J. Wallulis (ed.), Changing social science (Albany:
SUNY Press, 1983), 73-101.
1. An adequate explanation is a true description of underlying causal factors
sufficient to bring about the phenomenon in question.
2. Causal factors are things necessary, given the circumstances at hand, to
the phenomenon, that is, something else would have happened without the
3. Scholarly (or other) communities follow rules about the kinds and number of
causal factors to be distinguished as against consigned to the background
"circumstances at hand." These rules are subject to theoretical and empirical
debate, and can be rejected in favor of another set of rules if practice guided
by them is an inferior source of explanations for other phenomena (p. 757).
4. The hermeneutic criteria for explanation, namely, that explanation enhances
the reader's "capacity to interpret the words, acts, and symbols of others in
the interest of mutual understanding, and self-reflection" (p. 751), should not
5. Singular explanations are acceptable: A causal factor in one situation need
not have the same effect in all other situations or even in any other
situation. In other words causal factors do not have to be construable in
terms of implicit covering laws or statistical regularities.
B. A series of modifications to the base-line, which capture the sense of
causality and explanation used in Taylor, P. J. (1995). "Building on
construction: An exploration of heterogeneous constructionism, using an analogy
from psychology and a sketch from socio-economic modeling." Perspectives on
Science 3(1): 66-98.
1' An explanation is an account by someone (the explainer) claiming
(perhaps implicitly) to identify causal factors sufficient to bring about the
phenomenon in question.
2' Causal factors are things that the explainer wants readers to see as
necessary, that is, to see that something else would have happened if the
factor were changed.
To distinguish among: is to distinguish among things that:
a focal set of causal could have been different and would have made a
factors; difference if different;
background conditions; things upon which the focal causes are contingent, but
and that are not considered changeable; and
incidental conditions; things that occurred, were changeable, but that if
changed would have made no or negligible difference.
1'' A sufficient composite of causes is a set of conditions each of which is
seen by the readers as necessary, and additions to which either a) are not
considered changeable or b) make no or a negligible difference.
Herein lies the first of several ambiguities to be noted, each providing
some freedom of movement for the explainer:
Ambiguity 1. Background conditions are causes and may be
included in the sufficient composite. Given 1''a) the explainer could add more
background conditions or drop some out without changing the sufficiency.
Ambiguity 2. A second ambiguity is raised by the comparative method.
This method identifies a contrast among the background conditions for two
different situations ("background" because in each situation the condition is
constant) and then claims that the difference is the cause of the difference,
all other things being sufficiently similar. Or, taking situation A as the
base-line, the way situation B's background conditions depart from situation
A's is the cause of the outcome in situation B, even though B's background
conditions are not considered changeable. So, in considering background
conditions as causes a distinction is being opened up among
a) "if the factor were changed" (in 2');
b) whether it was actually changeable; and
c) whether anyone at the time and place considers/considered it changeable.
What can we do we with this ambiguity? We can accept an explanantion at the
purely hypothetical level a, but we can also take it as an invitation to go
back in time and identify the conditions that could have been changed (level b)
that led to (i.e., caused) the background condition. And, in doing so, we have
to consider if it matters to us as explainers or readers whether or not anyone
considers/considered it changeable (level c).
3'' Distinguishing between background and focal conditions is a particularly
active site for theorizing; here explainers attempt to define their audience
around conditions that those readers are prepared to consider changeable.
4' One way of preparing readers to consider a condition changeable is if they
could imagine themselves in the situation attempting to change it
(corresponding to level c of Ambiguity 2), that is, if the condition marks a
"site of intervention." In short, a form of hermeneutic criteria is
(contra Miller) potentially applicable. Similarly, this "imaginative
projection" can also inform readers' assessments of conditions being necessary;
composites being sufficient; and focal causes, background conditions and
incidentals being distinguished.
Ambiguity 3. 4' is implicitly an explanation of what can influence
acceptance of an explanation in the social sciences, so if I want to use 4' I
should support it and enlist supporters (see 1''' & 6 below).
Ambiguity 4. What are the alternatives to the imaginative projection?
If it is not necessary, but only sufficient, should we use it or not?
3'''. Given that the "situation" (see 4') is specified in terms of a number of
background conditions and focal causes, any analysis of the effect of a cause
(including imaginative projection) operates jointly, not piecewise.
The larger the set of focal causes and number of background conditions, the
more permutations and the more difficult the analysis.
The analysis can be simplified in many ways:
a) conditions are separated into background, focal and incidental (see 3');
b) background conditions are taken for granted, and simply subsumed into the
analysis of the effect of the focal causes (cf. Ambiguity 2);
c) background conditions are subsumed by converting from determinations to
propensities, that is, assessing the effects of the focal causes in terms of
d) incidentals are ignored;
e) background conditions are combined into synthetic variables (e.g., the
f) the number of focal causes are minimized by shifting some or most to the
background or incidental categories; and
g) the focal causes that remain are of similar kinds (e.g., relating to the
level of family situation and not spanning across the economy, government,
Ambiguity 5. Simplification of complexity in these ways employs
heuristics, which include heuristics about whether the audience will accept the
result as a sufficient composite or find grounds to revise it (see 1'' -- to
whom are incidentals negligible? -- & 3'').
1''' Explanations are strong to the extent that the explainer enlists an
audience to consider the focal set of causes and accompanying background
conditions to be a sufficient composite of necessary conditions.
Ambiguity 6. This strength is audience-specific and provisional.
Revision of explanations is driven by:
a) competition from other composites;
b) changes in the audience and its boundaries (perhaps brought about by the
c) counter-heuristics (e.g., shifting a background condition into the focal
4'' To the extent that imaginative projection operates (see 4'), an
explanation is likely to be superceded if the detail of a competing composite
allows the reader to imagine more intimately how the agents were acting in the
5' Singular explanations are acceptable, but the proposed causes are not
singular. Instead, they are construable as heuristics about this situation
being sufficiently similar to others that the audience will see how the cause
could have its proposed effect. In other words, even if regularities are not
necessary for explanation, a sense of "reliability" of a cause is.
1'''' The use of heuristics (see 3''' & 5'), audience specificity (see
Ambiguity 6), and other Ambiguities makes explanations themselves complex
phenomena. In explaining the strength of an explanation, therefore, it is
difficult to reduce the strength (see 1''') to the explanation's truth
(contra Miller's 1). However, heuristics can be employed to achieve
this simplification (see 3''') and the result accepted by certain audiences
(see 1'''). For other audiences, acceptance of the use of the truth heuristic
is a social phenomenon needing explanation.
Against this background the particular explanatory style proposed in Taylor
1995 can be characterized as follows:
--It emphasizes the "sites of intervention" sense of changeability (see
4') and uses imaginative projection, but does so heuristically, that is,
Ambiguities 3 & 4 are acknowledged; and it uses:
3'''' Counter-simplification heuristics that attempt to
a) keep background conditions from fading out of sight, in other words,
highlight the openness of the explanation for revision (see Ambiguity 6); and
b) maintain a high number and heterogeneity of causes within the focal set.
Ambiguity 7. Three contrasts should be noted between the production of
the accounts of severe depression and of the Kerang farm model:
a) the simplification heuristic of speaking in terms of propensities was
employed (implicitly) for the first account but not for the second, i.e., the
first case referred to a class of phenomena to be explained;
b) the linkage of causes, stressed in both cases, is presented as taking place
as a process over time in the first account, but not in the second; and
c) the methodology behind the severe depression case involves reading empirical
regularities as causes.
6a. Given that heuristics about simplification can factor in the
explainer's intended audience (see almost all the items in B), there is room
for reflexivity, that is, for examining the ways the explainer produces the
appearances of necessity and sufficiency.
b) Reflexivity is not a necessary component of explanation, but one that might
be elicited by the audience or undertaken to preempt the audience's call for
7. The framework in B for social explanation also applies to natural
scientific explanation, with the following modifications:
a) In natural science item 4' about what appears changeable is grounded in
b) Conversely, a condition can appear unchangeable if control can be achieved
so that the focal causes can be changed while the background controlled. In
this sense the causes of natural science are not causes in themselves, but
causes in combination with controlled background conditions;
c) In natural science explanations tend not to become a condition involved in
further explanations. For example, gravity operates independently of its
self-understanding or of our representations of it. In social science there
are degrees of independence, but zero dependence is not the norm.
To be continued:
Natural science & hybrids
"structure" to deal with different time scales of changeability, difficulty of
explanation vs. prediction
empirical regularities as "reliables"
relate to ther views e.g., INUS
more on comparative method (see Ragin)