, Volume 195, Issue 5, pp 2295–2312 | Cite as

Intervening on structure

  • Daniel Malinsky


Some explanations appeal to facts about the causal structure of a system in order to shed light on a particular phenomenon; these are explanations which do more than cite the causes X and Y of some state-of-affairs Z, but rather appeal to “macro-level” causal features—for example the fact that A causes B as well as C, or perhaps that D is a strong inhibitor of E—in order to explain Z. Appeals to these kinds of “macro-level” causal features appear in a wide variety of social scientific and biological research; statements about features such as “patriarchy,” “healthcare infrastructure,” and “functioning DNA repair mechanism,” for instance, can be understood as claims about what would be different (with respect to some target phenomenon) in a system with a different causal structure. I suggest interpreting counterfactual questions involving structural features as questions about alternative parameter settings of causal models, and propose an extension of the usual interventionist framework for causal explanation which enables scientists to explore the consequences of interventions on “macro-level” structure.


Causation Intervention Counterfactuals Explanation 



I would like to thank Liam Kofi Bright, David Danks, Greg Gandenberger, Clark Glymour, Kevin Hoover, Jonathan Livengood, Conor Mayo-Wilson, Jim Woodward, and two anonymous referees for comments on earlier drafts.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Carnegie Mellon UniversityPittsburghUSA

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