Social structures are often invoked as the cause of various problems in society. In this post, Lauren N. Ross discusses how social structural causes can be understood as constraints and why clarity on this point is not just a problem of definition, but important for addressing key policy issues.
Some causes are harder to understand than others. A prime example are “social structures”–these include public policies, economic systems, and educational resources, which are often said to “cause” various individual and societal outcomes. This is seen when we consider how access to medical insurance, public transportation, and fresh food have direct causal impact on the quality of our lives.
However, while these social structures appear to have causal influence, it is difficult to show how this works. This is partly because these factors don’t operate like familiar causes, such as falling dominos or colliding billiard balls. Instead, social structures are ‘’bigger-picture’’ causes that are that are harder to ‘’see’’ and define. They lack physical-impact causation and have a top-down influence on individuals, which is associated with the mysterious (and often unpopular) notion of downward causation. Finally, it can be easy to claim that individuals always play a larger causal role than the social structures in their environment. This is what Charles Tilly calls “standard stories”—our preference for telling stories that emphasize individuals and their choices, as opposed to the larger structures surrounding them.
A puzzle remains, however, because social structures still appear to causally influence our lives. Changing access to medical, educational, and other resources clearly makes a difference to individual and societal-level outcomes. How should we understand this?
A new method for addressing this involves viewing social structures as causal constraints. In this model, social structures constrain individuals in society, similar to how a riverbank constrains a river’s flow, to how a pinball machine constrains the ball’s movement, and to how the walls of a building constrain how we walk through it. This model has two main parts. First, these “structural” factors are genuine causes because they “make a difference’’ to outcomes—changes to these factors (e.g. medical insurance) reliably change the outcomes in question (e.g. health outcomes). This notion of causality is supported by social science research, such as the potential outcome framework and rigorous philosophical accounts of causation, such as Woodward’s interventionist account.
Second, while these structures meet these causation standards, it is important to note that they are not run-of-the-mill or garden-variety causes. They are a unique type of cause because they are constraints. Similar to the example of the building’s walls, causal constraints forcefully limit an agent’s options, and they are often viewed as more “fixed’’ than other causes. Causal constraints are viewed as more fixed because they change with more difficulty and on longer timescales. Our bias to ignore causes that are slow and harder to change can make it easy to ignore social structural causes.
Consider attempts to explain why there is increased prevalence of “unhealthy” diets among those of low socioeconomic status compared to those of a higher socioeconomic status. Is this explained by an individual’s choices or social structure? If we consider an individual living in a “food desert,” who has limited finances, little time, and receives more targeted fast-food advertising than those in wealthier neighbourhoods, the answer should be clear. In this case, social structure constrains (and limits) the person’s ability to choose the healthy diet in the first place. And even if the choice is still “possible,” in some sense, it is far more difficult to make than it is for individuals with more resources, which makes it less common in the low resource group. The different social structures experienced by these groups provides a better explanation of the dietary difference, than citing individuals and their choices or agency.
Just as a riverbank guides the river’s flow, social structures can constrain and explain an individual’s choices. And these causal constraints are not unique to the social sciences. Similar examples are found in neuroscience, physiology, and ecology. Neural pathways in the brain constrain the flow of signals, blood vessels constrain the flow of blood, and food-chains constrain the flow of energy through ecosystems. If other sciences have accepted these “structures” as causal, it’s time we extend the same view to structures in the social sciences.
Grappling with social structures and their effects requires engaging with the topic of causation. Discussions of causation are sometimes criticized as “mere” philosophical debates. The topic is sometimes viewed as trivial, semantic, or inconsequential. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Causal claims are powerful and loaded statements. These statements need to be clearly supported and, when this is done, they have profound implications. To say that a factor “causes” some outcome means that it explains, is responsible for, and can control that outcome. When social structure is shown to be a cause of inequities in society, this doesn’t just mean that structure explains and is responsible for them. It doesn’t just mean that we can support this claim with a good argument. It means that these social structures—and not individuals and their choices—are the targets we need to change in order to make things better.
This post draws on the author’s article, What is social structural explanation? A causal account, published in Nous.
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