Process describes how something happens; cause and effect analyzes why something happens. Cause-and-effect essays examine causes, describe effects, or do both. In the following passage from a New York Times column entitled “The Pump on the Well,” Tom Wicker considers the effects of a technological advance on a village in India.
[Cause] When a solar-powered water pump was provided for a well in India, the village headman took it over and sold the water, until stopped. The new liquid abundance attracted hordes of unwanted nomads. Village boys who had drawn water in buckets had nothing to do, and some became criminals. The gap between rich and poor widened, since the poor had no land to benefit from irrigation. [Effects]Finally, village women broke the pump, so they could gather again around the well that had been the center of their social lives. Moral: technological advances have social, cultural sentence and economic consequences, often unanticipated.
Cause and effect, like narration, links situations and events together in time, with causes preceding effects. But causality involves more than sequence: Cause-and-effect analysis explains why something happened–or is happening—and it predicts what probably will happen.
Sometimes many different causes can be responsible for one effect. For example, many elements may contribute to an individual’s decision to leave his or her native country and come to the United States.
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Political repression Immigrants come to the United States
Desire to join family members
Desire for economic opportune
Desire for religious freedom
Similarly, many different effects can be produced by a single cause. Immigration, for instance, has had a variety of effects on the United States.
Immigrants come to Diverse culture
the United States New goods and services
Challenges to educational system
New political agendas
Of course, causal relationships are rarely as neat as these examples suggest. Such relationships are often subtle and complex. As you examine situations that seem suited to cause-and-effect analysis, you will discover that most complex situations involve numerous causes and many different effects. Consider this example.
For over twenty years, from the 1960s to the 1980s, the college board scores of high school seniors steadily declined. This decline began soon after television became popular, and therefore many people concluded that the two events were connected. The idea is plausible because children did seem to be reading less in order to watch television more and because reading comprehension is one of the chief skills the tests evaluate.
But many other elements might have contributed to the lowering of test scores. During the same period, for example, many schools reduced the number of required courses and deemphasized traditional subjects and skills, such as reading. Adults were reading less than they used to, and perhaps they were not encouraging their children to read. Furthermore, during the 1960s and 1970s, many colleges changed their policies and admitted students who previously would not have qualified. These new admission standards encouraged students who would not have taken college boards in earlier years to take the tests. Therefore, the scores may have been lower because they now measured the top third of high school seniors rather than the top fifth. In any case, the reason for the lower scores is not clear. Perhaps television was the cause after all, but now–with SAT verbal scores apparently starting to creep upward again, but with the percentage of students scoring below 400 still climbing steadily while television watching remains fairly constant– nobody knows for sure. In such a case, it is easy–too easy–to claim a cause-and-effect relationship without the evidence to support it.
After a long, hard day of school and work, I walk up the stairs to my apartment. As I approach the door, I can already hear the television. I open the door and am not surprised to see my brother on the couch, hand on remote, flipping through channels. My brother could be crowned couch potato king. He watches television day and night so much that my cousins and I now refer to him as the Human TV ...
Just as the lower scores may have had many causes, television watching may have had many effects. For instance, it may have made those same students better observers and listeners, even if they did less well on standardized written tests. It may have given them a national or even international outlook instead of a narrow interest in local affairs. In other words, even if watching television may have limited people in some ways, it may have broadened them in others.
To give your readers a balanced analysis, you should try to consider all causes and effects, not just the most obvious ones or the first ones you think of. For example, suppose a professional basket- ball team, recently stocked with the best players money can buy, has had a mediocre season. Because the individual players are talented and because they were successful under other coaches, fans blame the current coach for the team’s losing streak and want him fired. But can the coach alone be responsible? Maybe the inability of the players to mesh well as a team is responsible for their poor performance. Perhaps some of the players are suffering from injuries, personal problems, or drug dependency. Or maybe the drop in attendance at games has affected the team’s morale. Clearly, other elements be- sides the new coach could have caused the losing streak. Indeed, the suspected cause of the team’s decline-the coach-may actually have saved the team from total collapse by keeping the players from quarreling with one another. In writing about such a situation, you must carefully identify these complex causes and effects.
An overview of the topicSupply chain management is a cross-functional approach that includes managing the movement of raw materials into an organization. There are different people, which are involved in supply chain process. Managing this process can increase the performance of the firms and can help the firm to form long term bonds with different suppliers. SCM has gained importance in ...
Main and Contributory Causes
Even when you have identified several causes of an effect, one–the main cause–is always more important than the others–the contributory causes. Understanding the distinction between the main or most important cause and the contributory or less important causes is vital for planning a cause-and-effect paper: When you can identify the main cause, you can emphasize it in your paper and downplay the less important causes. How can you tell which is the main, or most important, cause? Sometimes the main cause is obvious, but often it is not, as the following example shows.
During one winter a number of years ago, an abnormally large amount of snow accumulated on the roof of the Civic Center Auditorium in Hartford, Connecticut, and the roof fell in. Newspapers reported that the weight of the snow had caused the collapse, and they were partly right. Other buildings, however, had not been flat- tened by the snow, so the main cause seemed to lie elsewhere. Insur- ance investigators eventually decided that the design of the roof, not the weight of the snow, was the main cause of the disaster.
The following diagram outlines the cause-and-effect relationships in the above situation.
Main Cause Contributory Cause
Roof design Weight of snow
Because the main cause is not always obvious, it is important that you consider the significance of each cause very carefully as you plan your essay-and that you continue to evaluate the relative importance of your main cause and to consider possible alternatives to it as you write and revise.
Immediate and Remote Causes
Another important distinction is the difference between an immediate cause and a remote cause. An immediate cause closely precedes an effect and therefore is relatively easy to recognize. A remote cause is less obvious, perhaps because it takes place further in the past or farther away. Assuming that the most obvious cause is always the most important can be dangerous as well as shortsighted.
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For example, look again at the Hartford roof collapse. Most people agreed that the snow was the immediate, or most obvious, cause of the roof collapse. But further study by insurance investigators uncovered remote causes that were not so apparent. The design of the roof was the most important remote cause of the collapse. In addition, perhaps the materials used in the roof’s construction were partly to blame. Maybe maintenance crews had not done their jobs properly, or necessary repairs had not been made. If you were the insurance investigator analyzing the causes of this event, you would want to assess all possible contributing factors rather than just the most obvious. If you did not consider the remote as well as the immediate causes, you would reach an oversimplified and illogical conclusion.
This diagram outlines the cause-and-effect relationships in the situation summarized above.
Possible Remote Causes
Immediate Cause Roof materials
Weight of snow Improper maintenance
Repairs not made
In this situation, the remote causes are extremely important; in fact, as we have seen, it is a remote cause-the roof design-that was the main cause of the accident.
The Causal Chain
Sometimes an effect can also be a cause. This is true in a causal chain, where A causes B, B causes C, C causes D, and so on.
(Cause) E Effect
If your analysis of a situation reveals a causal chain, this discovery can be useful in your writing. The very operation of a causal chain suggests an organizational pattern for a paper, and following the chain keeps you from discussing links out of their logical order. Be careful, however, to keep your emphasis on the causal connections and not to lapse into narration.
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A simple example of a causal chain starts with the conclusion of World War II in 1945. Beginning in 1946, as thousands of American soldiers returned home, the United States birth rate began to rise dramatically. As the numbers of births increased, the creation of goods and services designed to meet the needs of this growing new population also increased. As advertisers competed to attract this group’s attention to these products, the so-called “baby boom generation” became more and more visible. Consequently, baby boomers were perceived as more and more powerful–as voters as well as consumers. As a result, this group’s emergence has been a major factor in shaping American political, social, cultural, and economic life.
In a causal chain like this one, the result of one action is the cause of another. Leaving out any link in the chain, or putting any link in improper order, destroys the logic and continuity of the chain.
Post Hoc Reasoning
When developing a cause-and-effect paper, you should not assume that simply because event A precedes event B, event A has caused event B. This illogical assumption, called post hoc reasoning, equates a chronological sequence with causality. When you fall into this trap–assurning, for instance, that you failed an exam because a black cat crossed your path the day before–you are mistaking coincidence for causality.
Consider another situation that illustrates post hoc reasoning. Until the late nineteenth century, many scientists accepted the notion of spontaneous generation-that is, they believed living things could arise directly from nonliving matter. To support their beliefs, they pointed to specific situations. For example, they observed that maggots, the larvae of the housefly, seemed to arise directly from the decaying flesh of dead animals.
What these scientists were doing was confusing sequence with causality, assuming that just because the presence of decaying meat preceded the appearance of maggots, the two were connected in a causal relationship. In fact, because the dead animals were exposed to the air, flies were free to lay eggs in the animals’ bodies. These eggs hatched into maggots. Therefore, the living maggots were not a direct result of the presence of nonliving matter. Although these scientists were applying the best technology and scientific theory of their time, hindsight reveals that their conclusions were not valid.
Thesis statements and topic sentences help organize the ideas in an essay. Academic writers are expected to use thesis statements and topic sentences. Academic essays are often organized using the following pattern: Introduction—the first paragraph of the essay. The thesis statement is usually the last sentence of the introductory paragraph. Body paragraphs—the paragraphs. Each of these body ...
In your writing as well as in your observations, it is neither logical nor fair for you to assume that a causal relationship exists in the absence of clear, strong evidence to support the connection. When you revise a cause-and-effect paper, make sure you have not confused words like because, therefore, and consequently–words that show a causal relationship–with words like subsequently, later, and afterward–words that show a chronological relationship. When you use a word like because, you are signaling your readers that you are telling why something happened; when you use a word like later you are only showing what did happen and when.
Being able to identify and analyze cause-and-effect relationships; to distinguish causes from effects and recognize causal chains; and to distinguish immediate from remote, main from contributory, and logical from illogical causes are all skills that will help you write. Understanding the nature of the cause-and-effect relationship will help you to decide when to use this pattern to structure a paper.
STRUCTURING A CAUSE-AND-EFFECT ESSAY
After you have sorted out the cause-and-effect relationships you will write about, you are ready to plan your paper. You have three basic options: to discuss causes, to discuss effects, or to discuss both causes and effects. Often your topic will suggest which of these options to use. Here are a few likely topics for cause-and-effect treatment:
Focus on finding causes
Discuss the causes of the Spanish- American War. (history exam)
Discuss the factors that have contributed to the declining population
of state mental hospitals. (social work paper)
Focus on describing or predicting effects
Discuss the impact of World War I on two of Ernest Hemingway’s
characters. (literature exam)
Evaluate the probable effects of moving elementary school children
from a highly structured classroom to a relatively open one.
Focus on both causes and effects
The 1840s were very volatile years in Europe. Choose one social,
political, or economic event that occurred during those
years, analyze effects its causes, and briefly note how
the event influenced later developments in European
history. (history exam)
Of course, a cause-and-effect essay usually does more than just enumerate causes or effects. For example, an economics paper treating the major effects of the Vietnam War on the U.S. economy could be a straightforward presentation of factual information–an attempt to inform readers of the war’s economic impact. More likely, however, the paper will indicate the significance of the war’s effects, not just list them. In fact, cause-and-effect analysis often requires you to judge various factors so that you can assess the relative significance of causes or effects.
When you formulate a thesis statement, you will want to be sure that it clarifies the relationships among the specific causes or effects you will discuss. This thesis statement should tell your readers three things: the points you plan to consider, the position you will take, and whether your emphasis is on causes, effects, or both. Your thesis statement may also indicate explicitly or implicitly the cause or effect you consider most important and the order in which you will treat your points.
You have several options when deciding on the sequence in which you will present causes or effects. One strategy, of course, is chronology–you can present causes or effects in the order in which they occurred. Another option is to introduce the main cause first and then the contributory causes–or do just the opposite. If you want to stress positive consequences, begin by briefly discussing the negative ones; if you prefer to emphasize negative results, summarize the less important positive effects first. Still another possibility is to begin by dismissing any events that were not causes and then to go on to explain what the real causes were. This method is especially effective if you think your readers are likely to jump to post hoc conclusions. Finally, you can begin with the most obvious causes or effects and move on to more subtle factors and then to your analysis and conclusion.
Suppose you are planning the social work paper mentioned earlier: “Discuss the factors that have contributed to the declining population of state mental hospitals.” Your assignment specifies an effect-the declining population of state hospitals-and asks you to discuss possible causes. Causes might include the following:
• An increasing acceptance of mental illness in our society
• Prohibitive costs of in-patient care
• Increasing numbers of mental-health professionals, facilitating treatment outside the hospital
Many health professionals, however, believe that the most important cause is the development and use of psychotropic drugs, such as chlorpromazine (Thorazine), which can alter behavior. To emphasize this cause in your paper, you could construct the following thesis statement:
Less important Although society’s increasing acceptance of the mentally ill, the high cost of
causes in-patient care, and the rise in the number of health professionals have all
Effect been influential in reducing the population of state mental hospitals, the
Most important most important cause of this reduction is the development and use of
cause psychotropic drugs.
This thesis statement fully prepares your readers for your essay. It identifies the points you will consider, and it also reveals your position–your assessment of the relative significance of the causes you identify. It states the less important causes first and indicates their secondary importance with although. In the body of your essay the less important causes would be considered first so that the essay could gradually build up to the most convincing material, the in- formation that is likely to have the greatest impact on the reader. An informal outline for your paper might look like this:
Introduction: Thesis statement–Although society’s increasing acceptance of the mentally ill, the high cost
of in-patient care, and the rise in the number of health professionals have all been influential
in reducing the population of state mental hospitals, the most important cause of this reduction
is the development and use of psychotropic drugs.
First cause: Increased acceptance of the mentally ill
Second cause: High cost of in-patient care
Third cause: Rise in the number of health professionals
Fourth (and most
important) cause: Development and use of psychotropic drugs
Conclusion: Summary of key points
Describing or Predicting Effects
Suppose you were planning the education paper mentioned earlier: “Evaluate the probable effects of moving elementary school children from a highly structured classroom to a relatively open classroom.” You would use a procedure similar to the one above to consider effects rather than find causes. After brainstorming and deciding which specific points to discuss, you might formulate this thesis statement:
Cause Moving children from a highly structured classroom to a relatively open one is desirable
Effects because it is likely to encourage more independent play, more flexibility in forming friendship
groups, and ultimately more creativity.
This thesis statement clearly tells readers the stand you will take and the main points your essay will consider in support of that stand; the thesis also clearly specifies that these points are effects of the open classroom. After introducing the cause, your essay would treat these three effects in the order in which they are presented in the thesis statement, building up to the most important point. An informal outline of your paper might look like this:
Introduction: Thesis statement-Moving children from a highly structured classroom to a relatively open one
is desirable because it is likely to encourage more independent play, more flexibility in forming
friendship groups, and, ultimately, more creativity.
First effect: More independent play
Second effect: More flexible friendship groups
Third (and most
important) effect: More creativity
Conclusion: Summary of key points