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Research Methods in the Social Sciences

Causal Design*

Definition and Purpose

Causality studies may be thought of as understanding a phenomenon in terms of conditional statements in the form, “If X, then Y.” This type of research is used to measure what impact a specific change will have on existing norms and assumptions. Most social scientists seek causal explanations that reflect tests of hypotheses. Causal effect (nomothetic perspective) occurs when variation in one phenomenon, an independent variable, leads to or results, on average, in variation in another phenomenon, the dependent variable.

Conditions necessary for determining causality:

  • Empirical association--a valid conclusion is based on finding an association between the independent variable and the dependent variable.
  • Appropriate time order--to conclude that causation was involved, one must see that cases were exposed to variation in the independent variable before variation in the dependent variable.
  • Nonspuriousness--a relationship between two variables that is not due to variation in a third variable.

What do these studies tell you?

  1. Causality research designs helps researchers understand why the world works the way it does through the process of proving a causal link between variables and eliminating other possibilities.
  2. Replication is possible.
  3. There is greater confidence the study has internal validity due to the systematic subject selection and equity of groups being compared.

What these studies don't tell you?

  1. Not all relationships are casual! The possibility always exists that, by sheer coincidence, two unrelated events appear to be related [e.g., Punxatawney Phil could accurately predict the duration of Winter for five consecutive years but, the fact remains, he's just a big, furry rodent].
  2. Conclusions about causal relationships are difficult to determine due to a variety of extraneous and confounding variables that exist in a social environment. This means causality can only be inferred, never proven.
  3. If two variables are correlated, the cause must come before the effect. However, even though two variables might be causally related, it can sometimes be difficult to determine which variable comes first and therefore to establish which variable is the actual cause and which is the  actual effect.


Sample Causal Design Studies