against root cause analysis

I am skeptical of the idea of “root causes” and the assumption that progress comes from addressing the roots of problems. The following points draw from discussions in our annual Summer Institutes of Civic Studies and are indebted to my co-teacher, Karol Soltan.

  1. The metaphor of a “root” seems misplaced. Social issues are not like plants that have one root system at the bottom and branches and leaves at the top, so that if you cut or move the root, you kill or move the whole plant with a single action. Very often, social phenomena are connected in systems that incorporate feedback loops and cycles, whether virtuous or vicious. It’s possible for one thing (A) to affect another thing (B) and for B also to affect A. Very often, outcomes are not the result of one ultimate cause but of the interaction of many causes. And causes can be viewed as outcomes, because there’s lots of reciprocal causation.
  2. Often, successful social action occurs even though the activists don’t know the root cause of a problem or they disagree about what it is. An example is the global movement to end slavery. Religious abolitionists argued that the root cause of slavery was sin, going back to the Fall of Man. “Free labor” abolitionists, like Abraham Lincoln, said that slavery was a plot to undermine a competitive market of labor in which the individual worker could profit. In contrast, Karl Marx wrote in 1847 that slavery was a lynchpin of global capitalism: “Direct slavery is just as much the pivot of bourgeois industry as machinery, credits, etc. Without slavery you have no cotton; without cotton you have no modern industry. It is slavery that has given the colonies their value; it is the colonies that have created world trade, and it is world trade that is the pre-condition of large-scale industry.” Frederick Douglass saw racism (“the wolfish hate and snobbish pride of race”) as a–or perhaps the–root cause of slavery. I suppose that all of them pointed to genuine causal factors, but the main point is that they formed a coalition that targeted the actual problem, not its underlying causes, and they won.
  3. Trying to identify root causes can delay or even block effective action. My friends Joel Westheimer and Joe Kahne wrote a very influential and valuable paper in 2004 entitled “Educating the ‘Good’ Citizen: Political Choices and Pedagogical Goals.”* They found that civic education programs in the US tended to fall into three categories, defined by their objectives for the students. An example illustrates the differences. In a program that aims to produce “personally responsible citizens,” a student will “contribute food to a food drive.” In a program whose ideal is to develop “participatory citizens,” a student will “help to organize a food drive.” In a program that emphasizes “justice-oriented citizens,” the student will “explore why people are hungry and act to solve root causes.” As Karol notes, the first two begin with an action, but the third begins with “exploring,” which doesn’t actually do any good in the world. Now, to be sure, one can also explore a diagram of a complex, interconnected system for a long time before doing anything, so it’s not only root-cause analysis that can fatally delay action. But I think that root-cause analysis is particularly likely to frustrate action because it sends us in search of the biggest, hardest, deepest aspect of a problem, which is exactly where the odds of success may be lowest. And that’s a mistake if problems do not actually have roots.

*Political Science and Politics, April 2004, pp 241-24.

See also Roberto Unger against root causes and roots of crime.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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  • Mary Ellen Daneels

    I think these are important ideas to consider. I have found that my students have benefited from service-learning/informed action projects that incorporate BOTH civil society and public policy(root cause) related initiatives. It is not an either/or proposition. Students can examine and address “root causes” AND take participatory actions that address the “symptoms”. #CivicsIsBack

  • Brian Brady

    I’m so happy to find an issue where I disagree with you on Peter! Since I always agree with you, it was getting a little boring. You know I love action, and action civics in particular, but I love root cause thinking just as much. The biggest issues we have in Chicago are probably violence and poverty (and the intersection of the two). Trying to get students to think about where these problems come from helps them to think of stronger actions and destigmatizes these issues to some degree for them. For example, one student project taking on gang violence decided lack of youth jobs was a root cause and got the alderman to start a jobs program at their school. Another project focused on why students were missing so many days of school and found out that students didn’t have money for transit or to clean their school uniforms. Once this was discovered, solutions were much easier to find and initiate action. In essence, root cause thinking is like the first steps in good “design thinking”; it studies what is happening in detail on the ground and why the problem is occurring. I agree if you go so deep on roots that it can be a rabbit hole that paralyzes, but If we don’t know at least some of the “why?”, we can never effectively get to the “what now?”.

    • PeterLevine

      Hi Brian, you make a very good argument. I agree that we should encourage kids to ask “why?”, as in design thinking or any good strategic thinking. My concern is that we may send them (or ourselves) down a rabbit hole if we look for the most fundamental cause of every problem. It’s often a better strategy to tackle a more superficial cause that can be addressed. To use your example, not having enough money for transit IS an important cause of missing school. Deep underneath that cause might be capitalism, racism, deindustrialization, or competition with China. I wouldn’t stop kids from looking deeper, but I think they’ll have more success if they stop at an answer to the “Why?” question that guides concrete action. (What are they going to do about capitalism?) Still, I think you raise an important challenge–and it is more fun to disagree now and then!