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Causation: A Unified Framework for the Social Sciences

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Abstract:

Is causation unitary or plural? The unitary view, implicit in most work adopting a positivist epistemology, has recently been criticized by a number of writers. These writers claim that the unitary perspective betrays a narrow conception of causation and is not reflective of the broad range of causal arguments present in the field of social science today. Instead, these writers suggest that the field of the social sciences is characterized by a plurality of causal assumptions (epistemological, ontological, or logical) and an associated diversity of research designs. Causation is plural, not unitary.
Evidently, there are many ways to think about causation. Indeed, once we head down the analytic road it is not clear where we might stop, or ought to stop. Causal arguments are, in principle, infinite in their diversity. It is equally evident that the type of causal argument one chooses to adopt is likely to affect oneís choice of research design. In this respect causal pluralists offer an important corrective to a naÔve positivism.
However, the pluralist view of causation raises several difficulties. First, causal typologies such as those as sketched above may over-state the ontological, epistemological, and/or logical different-ness of causal explanations in the social sciences. More important, whatever diversity of causal logic in fact characterizes the contemporary social sciences there is little profit to be gained from a plural account of causation. If causation means different things to different people then causal arguments cannot meet. They are apples and oranges. Thus, insofar as we value cumulation in the social sciences there is a strong prima facie case for a unified account of causation. The crucial caveat is that this unified account of causation must be sufficiently encompassing to bring together all of the arguments that we refer to as causal in the social sciences. Unity is useful, but not if achieved by (arbitrary) definitional fiat.
I argue that there is an underlying concept of causation shared by all (or most) protagonists in this debate. The core, or minimal, definition of causation held implicitly within the social sciences is that a cause raises the probability of an event occurring. This understanding of causation, which is borrowed from but not wedded to Baysian inference, provides common semantic ground on which to base a reconstruction of causation. I argue, second, that rather than thinking about causation as a series of discrete types or distinct rules we ought to re-conceptualize this complex form of argument as a set of logical criteria applying to all arguments that are causal in nature (following the foregoing definition), across fields and across methods. I argue, third, that in coming to grips with causation it is helpful to distinguish between the formal properties of a causal argument and the methods by which such an argument might be tested. The two questions, What are you arguing? and How do you know it is true? are logically distinct and call forth different criteria of adequacy.
My final argument, and the core of the paper, concerns the specific criteria that are commonly applied to causal argumentation and proof. I argue that sixteen criteria apply to the formal properties of causal argument and eight apply to the choice of research design (the task of demonstration or proof). It will be argued, therefore, that causation in the social sciences is both more diverse and more unified than has generally been recognized. It is more diverse insofar as the criteria applied to causal argumentation surpasses the implications of even the broadest of the causal typologies sketched above. There are multiple dimensions by which causal arguments are rightly judged. It is more unified insofar as these criteria apply across existing fields, methods, ontologies, and epistemologies. This perspective does not dispute the diversity of empirical approaches evident in the social sciences today, including textual, ethnographic, experimental, statistical, and formal methods of analysis (often grouped into three large camps -- interpretivist, behavioralist, and rational choice). What it does is to call attention to the remarkable commonalities that underlie these apparently heterogeneous approaches.

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causal (202), scienc (114), caus (113), argument (106), social (93), case (93), one (87), causat (69), compar (69), research (69), proposit (67), press (57), y (54), may (54), studi (53), explan (53), univers (51), theori (48), also (45), x (45), polit (43),

Author's Keywords:

causation, qualitative methods
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Gerring, John. "Causation: A Unified Framework for the Social Sciences" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Philadelphia Marriott Hotel, Philadelphia, PA, Aug 27, 2003 <Not Available>. 2009-05-26 <http://www.allacademic.com/meta/p62768_index.html>

APA Citation:

Gerring, J. , 2003-08-27 "Causation: A Unified Framework for the Social Sciences" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Philadelphia Marriott Hotel, Philadelphia, PA Online <.PDF>. 2009-05-26 from http://www.allacademic.com/meta/p62768_index.html

Publication Type: Conference Paper/Unpublished Manuscript
Review Method: Peer Reviewed
Abstract: Is causation unitary or plural? The unitary view, implicit in most work adopting a positivist epistemology, has recently been criticized by a number of writers. These writers claim that the unitary perspective betrays a narrow conception of causation and is not reflective of the broad range of causal arguments present in the field of social science today. Instead, these writers suggest that the field of the social sciences is characterized by a plurality of causal assumptions (epistemological, ontological, or logical) and an associated diversity of research designs. Causation is plural, not unitary.
Evidently, there are many ways to think about causation. Indeed, once we head down the analytic road it is not clear where we might stop, or ought to stop. Causal arguments are, in principle, infinite in their diversity. It is equally evident that the type of causal argument one chooses to adopt is likely to affect oneís choice of research design. In this respect causal pluralists offer an important corrective to a naÔve positivism.
However, the pluralist view of causation raises several difficulties. First, causal typologies such as those as sketched above may over-state the ontological, epistemological, and/or logical different-ness of causal explanations in the social sciences. More important, whatever diversity of causal logic in fact characterizes the contemporary social sciences there is little profit to be gained from a plural account of causation. If causation means different things to different people then causal arguments cannot meet. They are apples and oranges. Thus, insofar as we value cumulation in the social sciences there is a strong prima facie case for a unified account of causation. The crucial caveat is that this unified account of causation must be sufficiently encompassing to bring together all of the arguments that we refer to as causal in the social sciences. Unity is useful, but not if achieved by (arbitrary) definitional fiat.
I argue that there is an underlying concept of causation shared by all (or most) protagonists in this debate. The core, or minimal, definition of causation held implicitly within the social sciences is that a cause raises the probability of an event occurring. This understanding of causation, which is borrowed from but not wedded to Baysian inference, provides common semantic ground on which to base a reconstruction of causation. I argue, second, that rather than thinking about causation as a series of discrete types or distinct rules we ought to re-conceptualize this complex form of argument as a set of logical criteria applying to all arguments that are causal in nature (following the foregoing definition), across fields and across methods. I argue, third, that in coming to grips with causation it is helpful to distinguish between the formal properties of a causal argument and the methods by which such an argument might be tested. The two questions, What are you arguing? and How do you know it is true? are logically distinct and call forth different criteria of adequacy.
My final argument, and the core of the paper, concerns the specific criteria that are commonly applied to causal argumentation and proof. I argue that sixteen criteria apply to the formal properties of causal argument and eight apply to the choice of research design (the task of demonstration or proof). It will be argued, therefore, that causation in the social sciences is both more diverse and more unified than has generally been recognized. It is more diverse insofar as the criteria applied to causal argumentation surpasses the implications of even the broadest of the causal typologies sketched above. There are multiple dimensions by which causal arguments are rightly judged. It is more unified insofar as these criteria apply across existing fields, methods, ontologies, and epistemologies. This perspective does not dispute the diversity of empirical approaches evident in the social sciences today, including textual, ethnographic, experimental, statistical, and formal methods of analysis (often grouped into three large camps -- interpretivist, behavioralist, and rational choice). What it does is to call attention to the remarkable commonalities that underlie these apparently heterogeneous approaches.

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Causation: A Unified Framework for the Social Sciences John Gerring Boston University Department of Political Science 232 Bay State Road Boston MA 02215 617-353-2756 jgerring@bu.edu Prepared for submission at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association Philadelphia PA August 2003 Comments requested! Abstract Is causation unitary or plural? The unitary view implicit in most work adopting a positivist epistemology has recently been criticized by a number of writers. These writers claim that the unitary perspective betrays a
Georg Henrik. 1971. Explanation and Understanding. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. Watkins J.W.N. 1994. ‚ÄúHistorical Explanation in the Social Sciences.‚ÄĚ In Michael Martin and Lee C. McIntyre (eds) Readings in the Philosophy of Social Science (Cambridge: MIT Press). Whitbeck C. 1977. ‚ÄúCausation in Medicine: The Disease Entity Model.‚ÄĚ Philosophy of Science 44 619-37. Wilson Edward O. 1998. Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. Zelditch M. Jr. 1971. ‚ÄúIntelligible Comparisons.‚ÄĚ In I. Vallier (ed) Comparative Methods in


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