Lauren Ross

“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.”

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