My brake from writing ended up to be longer than intended. As I'm going through quite a transformation in my life, both personally and professionally, it has been difficult to find some time to sit down and write. I also have less time to ruminate and hence fewer topics to write about … But let me stop finding excuses and jump into today's email. Just so much: I'm not sure I can keep up the weekly rhythm with my emails at the moment.
One topic I have been thinking about recently is causality – actually I have been thinking about it on and off for many years, but it feels like recently I have had a significant insight. And as it is with every insight, it feels so obvious now with hindsight that I am almost embarrassed to say that, while I have been aware of the idea on an intellectual level for a while, I have only really internalised its significance now.
In essence, the insight is that there are different types of causality and that this differentiation is crucial in understanding the relationship between cause and effect. Yet most often, this differentiation is not made and causality is seen as one thing.
This more common way of seeing causality is what some call 'material causality' and it is based on Newtonian physics: the effect one billiard ball has when it hits another one. The energy for the effect is in the first billiard ball and the shape of the effect is predetermined by the laws of mechanics based on the impulse of the first billiard ball. Hence, the first billiard ball is the material (i.e. tangible) cause of what happens to the second billiard ball. This second billiard ball has not much to do with it except having the material properties it has. Unfortunately this often seems to be the only definition of causality and its used for everything.
Translating this way of thinking into a development programme example should sound familiar: both the energy for and the intended direction of change are seen to be in the intervention and the targeted people are essentially expected to react in a certain predetermined way, e.g. businesses change their behaviour to adopt more modern technologies because an intervention targeted this specific behaviour change and provided the energy (i.e. resources) for it.
The other type of causality is very different. Here, the shape of the effect is actually not in the cause, but in the thing that is targeted. What is transmitted from the 'causing entity' to the 'receiving entity' is not actually an impulse, but information. It's more what one could all a trigger. But how the effected change looks like is less a consequence of that trigger and more (or at least as much) a consequence of what was already inherent in the thing triggered - it's history, it's own energy resources, it's experiences, etc. And as you can deduce here when I say experiences and energy levels, this type of causality generally happens when living things are involved, not with inanimate matter like billiard balls.
Gregory Bateson often used the following example to describe the difference: when you kick a ball you can exactly know how it will fly based on how hard and at what angle you kick it (the effect is mainly determined by the cause). Yet when you kick a dog, the effect very much depends on what is already inherent in the dog – the dog's history of being kicked by people, for example. Also the energy of the dog's reaction is not coming from the impulse of your kick, but rather from the dog's own metabolism.
To translate this second type of causality again into the development example above: the intervention will trigger something in the targeted people but we cannot say what kind of effect we will see. This depends on the history, experiences, etc. that are already inherent to these people, and the specificities of the context they live in. Also, the energy for the change comes largely from the resources of the targeted people themselves. Hence, whether targeted businesses will actually adopt modern technologies as a consequence of our intervention depends on their previous experiences with modern technologies, with dealing with development programmes, the resources the businesses have available, and the context they live in, which can be enabling or hindering as well and certainly shapes the effect.
All of this of course has consequences for how we plan to achieve a certain change - our Theories of Change. We cannot know how a living being will react to a trigger. Yet we can get an idea of certain dispositions or propensities that are there and that might make certain behaviours more likely than others. More thinking needed here ...
So here we go, just a few thoughts on causality. I'm curious to read about your thoughts. Just reply to this email.