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Causal Explanations in History

Historians are interested in explaining the past. More than simply recount a sequence of events, historians strive to explain why events happened as they did.

Historians’ causal explanations differ from most of our everyday explanations. Historians do not have a time machine, and so cannot simply go back in time and ask for answers in the way that you might do when you ask your sister, “Why did you borrow my car without asking?” But even if historians could go back in time, the kinds of explanations that they would look for are not generally the kind that the testimony of a single “eyewitness” could provide. Historical questions such as, “What caused the First World War?” or “Did increased use of birth control affect women’s status in society”? are not answerable by reference to a single individual’s experience or knowledge.

Historians generally explain the past with reference to broader social influences rather than rely only on a personal statement of preference or on happenstance. For example, if a historian wants to know why Irish people immigrated to Canada, he or she will look beyond personal explanations (direct causes) in diaries such as “because we are tired of life in Ireland” or “because we wanted our children to have more to eat,” even though these thoughts quite likely crossed the minds of Irish immigrants as they contemplated their options. Historians would want to examine the root causes of poverty in Ireland and why poor people had worse health than wealthy people and shorter life spans.

The broader social and political influences are often referred to as underlying causes. These are explanatory and descriptive concepts that relate to society more generally. Historians might use such factors as ethnic inequality, oppression, religious conflict, class, gender, and/or political and economic power to explain Irish immigration to Canada. For example, they might conclude that many moved to Canada to escape the poverty, inequality, and political oppression that Catholics experienced in Ireland in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and to realize the opportunity to live without landlords, on land they themselves owned.

In finding causal explanations for events, beliefs, and actions in history, historians look beyond individual’s testimony about personal experience, and make generalizations rooted in underlying social and political factors that place the individual within their broader society and times.