Cause and Effect

October 2022

Whether causation “really exists” or not, it certainly exists in our “life world.”. . . The world of ordinary language (the world in which we actually live) is full of causes and effects. It is only when we insist that the world of ordinary language . . . is defective . . . and look for a “true” world . . . that we end up feeling forced to choose between the picture of “a physical universe with a built-in structure” and “a physical universe with a structure imposed by the mind.” H. Putnam (1990). “Realism with a Human Face, p. 89.

Adams River, British Columbia, Canada

When I was first presented with the topic of causation as part of my work as a research assistant, I was hesitant and uncertain. I hadn’t thought much about causation whether in real life or in education and was unsure about what I would discover about the topic. The first few articles I read focused on calculation and computation which, suffice it to say, did not ‘engage’ me in the topic. As I began to read more however, I began to see that attributing causality is not only a component of human experience, but that it is a central and necessary part of research activity. Humans always want to know the ‘why’ of the reason something has happened and much of the activity of the academic world is intended to uncover causal factors in events. The above quote by Hilary Putnam supports the notion that causation is also part of our ordinary ‘life world’ whether it comes from a physical or mental perspective. Simple connections such as the effect of losing weight due to the cause of increasing exercise or reducing food intake are pretty familiar to us. Another example of causation in daily life is that if I treat others well, they will treat me well in return (this one always works, right?). Think about how many of your daily activities are filled with cause-and-effect connections like these. There must be verifiable ways of making causal inferences or explanations about what factors contribute to the ‘why’ of events? My reading since my initial non-engagement has moved away from the calculation and computation approach to causation, and about finding other ways to understand and make determinations of causality.

In his article, The Importance of Qualitative Research for Causal Explanation in Education , Joseph Maxwell (2012) writes that most causal approaches have been based on scientific, quantitative methods usually through Randomized Controlled Trial (or RCT) methods. These clinical trials are based on random selection of groups and then using statistical analyses to make connections between the effect of one variable on another. Clinical trials like this are based on positivist applications of variance theory that the world can be explained as the action of one variable on another. According to Maxwell, limiting causality to this approach is based on a “narrow, incomplete, and dated conception of causality” (p. 655). While these clinical approaches are certainly valid sources of cause and effect, there are other ways to finding cause. An added approach to causality can be established by qualitative methods which use “‘realist,’ ’generative’, or ‘process’” approaches (p. 656) which account for how the context of actual events contributes to outcomes. This is called “causal realism” (Little, 2010, cited in Maxwell, 2012, p. 657) and is based on the understanding that process is an essential part of causation. Causal realism recognizes the importance of process and includes making our beliefs, values, intentions and perceived meanings a part of the causation equation. It is a worldview which includes constructivist understandings which are limited, incomplete and not always objective. I don’t know about you, but this sounds like the world I live in!

Traditional approaches from clinical trials are important but often neglect other factors which can impact why things happen the way they do. Cause and effect are a reality in our world and needs to be included in how we build our understandings and conclusions about how the world works.. Humans will always want to know ‘why’ something has happened and a little bit of knowledge of the field of causality is important not only to researchers but to us regular folks.  Consider me now ‘engaged’ by this topic!

Source: Maxwell, J. A. (2012). The Importance of Qualitative Research for Causal Explanation in Education. Qualitative Inquiry, 18(8), 655–661.

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