University of Maryland
Sociology 441: Stratification 

Causal explanations

As sociologists, we are interested not only in describing stratification, we would like to know why stratification exists in the way it does. For example, not just whether poverty has been increasing or decreasing but why has poverty been increasing? Or, not just whether racial inequality is especially bad in Baltimore, but why is racial inequality worse in Baltimore than in, say, Seattle? Causal questions are the heart of sociological thinking so we need to learn how to frame our questions and tentative answers into clear causal statements, usually of the form "X causes Y".

Some examples are:

Causal relationships are relationships between two factors. They imply:

The more of X, then the more of Y.

  (Or if the causal relationship is negative: "The more of X, then the less of Y.) Causal relationships always imply comparisons across people, groups, societies, or some other social unit. For example, the first causal example above about de-industrialization implies that: The point is there is always some comparison so that higher and lower on the cause is associated with higher or lower on the consequence. If we are comparing individual people than usually we are looking at a micro-level causal relationship. If we are comparing societies (or years in the history of a society), then we are usually looking at a macro-level causal relationship.
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Last updated March 15, 2000
comments to: Reeve Vanneman.