causes of differences

The other day I read a useful paper about causation, by Kenneth Waters, who is now at the University of Calgary. At least I found it useful. Every so often I’ll make a dive into philosophical literature on causation, and the recurrent problem that I find is that philosophers are generally preoccupied with causation for single events (examples of balls hitting other balls and convoluted assassination schemes) or for big generalizations about classes of events. Meanwhile, sociologists regularly form their causal questions as about differences between groups of persons, as in wanting to explain why whites score higher on standardized tests than blacks or why women live longer than men.

Waters explicitly tries to formulation insights about causation in population terms. As he puts it:

Focusing attention on singleton situations about a single lighting of a match, a single breaking of a vase, or the single catastrophic dropping of a boulder obscures important features of causation. Much light could be shed on causal reasoning by shifting attention to causes in populations.

To get there, he draws a distinction between potential difference makers and actual difference makers. The key move here is the study of actual differences, for which you have to be talking about the causes of multiple outcomes, that is, a population. While potential difference makers are the larger body of causes of an outcome, actual difference makers are the ones for which actual variation in the population in question explains actual variation in the outcome.

Author: jeremy

I am the Ethel and John Lindgren Professor of Sociology and a Faculty Fellow in the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

One thought on “causes of differences”

  1. Thanks for the link! I very much enjoyed the paper, and agree that it’s decidedly more useful for thinking about sociological problems than the typical philosophical contribution.

    In a similar vein, I found Alan Garfinkel’s Forms of Explanations to be very useful. I think what Waters is doing with invariance and “actual difference makers” is a more narrowly specified version of what Garfinkel is doing with the idea of contrast classes (that all explanations are relative to a particular contrast). Garfinkel has some nice examples from the social sciences, including discussions of structural kinds of causes and the problem of individual narratives around causation (e.g. in a class with a strict grade curve, every student’s grade causes every other student’s grade in some important but hard to specify way).

    Also of possible interest: there were several pieces in the most recent Philosophy of Science on causality, along with three papers on the clines/clades/race issue (paralleling the recent Sociological Theory debate).


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