Features, Politics, Social Science

Beware of Root Causes

What does it mean to claim that something is the ‘root cause’ of a problem in society?

It’s common, for instance, to hear the assertion that ‘the root cause of terrorism is Western foreign policy’. The implication being that the responsibility for terrorist attacks ultimately lies at the feet of the West since its interventionist foreign policy has destabilized the Middle East – irrespective of any other source of causality. The phrase ‘root cause’ invites us to become privy to society’s underlying pathologies that, if remedied, could improve the world beyond the scope of someone merely observing the surface.

Much like a bug in a software program causing a computer to shut down, or a leaky pipe causing subsidence under a house, the language of root causes implies that problems can be traced back through a cascading chain of events to an initial fault. Under this assumption, our goal should be to target that underlying problem rather than the ways in which the problem manifests itself in society.

A framework based around root causes is alluring for several reasons. It appears to simplify complex problems into pieces that can be more easily targeted, as a root cause may be easier to deal with than the broader problem that stems from it. There is also the possibility of killing two or more birds with one stone, as multiple problems may have the same root cause. Perhaps most inviting though is the appearance of profound insight into the nature of a problem, and a framework for how one should proceed thereon. Consider this passage from a paper advocating for ‘root cause analysis’ when attempting to understand and solve large-scale social problems:

Once a problem’s root causes are found, night becomes day. What was a murky cloud of befuddling complexity becomes a social problem structure so clear that its correct solutions are obvious.

If only it were so simple.

Tracing a lineage of causes back to their root may work reliably in non-complex, relatively closed systems. A well-trained mechanic can normally diagnose the root cause of why your car has broken down so it will continue to run well in the long term. But for complex social problems, the task of finding something that could be described as a root cause is far more difficult. Most social problems are multifaceted, with different causal layers and dimensions interacting in ways that are not reducible to a single phenomenon. They can co-evolve with other social problems in ways that are counterintuitive and unpredictable. More often though, the concept of a root cause is deployed in ways that serve particular discursive — and often political — ends.

Consider the reality of domestic violence (otherwise known as intimate partner violence), which has received significant attention from government and media in recent years. Australian state and federal governments have allocated substantial funding to programs that claim to address the ‘root cause of domestic violence’; allegedly, gender inequality. It’s thought that because the majority of perpetrators of domestic violence are men, then the underlying driver must be men’s views toward women, and the socio-cultural environment that supports and enables such views.

Under these assumptions, it is necessary to address the root of the problem if we want to eliminate gender-based violence permanently. It also happens that this view aligns with a feminist perspective that views gendered violence as fundamentally different from other forms of violence, and therefore a manifestation of a patriarchal social order. Addressing the root cause of DV would ostensibly kill two birds with one stone.

It’s easy to see why the prospect of uncovering and describing root causes is so attractive to researchers, activists, and policymakers. For researchers, seeking to identify the root cause of a social issue appears intellectually ambitious, revealing the base social structure of what we experience in everyday life. For activists, identifying and tackling the root cause of something is likely to be far more satisfying than merely addressing the symptoms. For policymakers in government, the prospect of funding programs and initiatives that address the root of a problem is also appealing, given that it may reduce their need for future expenditure in dealing with the manifestation of the problem in society.

In the case of domestic violence, the gender-inequality-as-root-cause hypothesis has come to dominate the policy and activism space, in contrast to rigorous academic research that acknowledges a range of contributing factors such as poverty, mental illness, alcohol abuse, personality pathology, and poor verbal ability – none of which can be described as ‘root cause’. It can also be falsified relatively easily, if only one has the inclination to do so. Same sex couples – where, by definition, gender inequality cannot be a contributing factor – experience similar rates of domestic violence as heterosexual couples. Developed countries that experience the highest levels of gender equality, primarily in Scandinavia, also experience above average rates of domestic violence than the rest of the EU. It’s difficult to see how something could be a root cause for a societal problem when the problem persists in contexts where that variable is removed or minimized.

Jordan Peterson also encountered the gender-inequality-as-root-cause hypothesis in his infamous interview with Cathy Newman about the gender pay gap. Newman claimed that the root cause of the gender pay gap was discrimination against women. Peterson objected to this, not because there is no discrimination against women, but because it’s merely one factor among many that contribute to an overall disparity in pay between men and women. Peterson understood that these sorts of problems are multivariate, with many different factors contributing and interacting in ways that are difficult to separate from each other. To parse these multiple contributing factors requires relatively complex statistical techniques whilst working with comprehensive data sources, something that too many journalists and activists show very little interest in doing. And crucially, it is impossible to legitimately characterize any of these variables as ‘root causes’, the elimination of which would rectify the problem as it manifests in society today.

Claims about knowledge of root causes should not go unquestioned. When they are encountered we should ask: does this social problem actually have a root cause, or does it have multiple factors that coalesce to contribute to it? What evidence is there that the purported root cause of a problem precedes and gives rise to other relevant phenomena? And perhaps most importantly: what political or discursive purpose does it serve to claim that something is a root cause?

Diagnosing a root cause for some societal ill is almost always a political move designed to draw attention toward certain explanations whilst simultaneously drawing it away from others. It attempts to present certain causal factors as having a primacy that is at best unfalsifiable, and at worst flatly contradicted by real-world examples. Speaking of root causes of complex social problems conveys an epistemic authority that is often not earned.


Andrew Glover is a sociologist based in Wollongong, Australia. He tweets at @theandrewglover