Skip to main content

more options

And so on, and so on ... - Causal Pathways

The idea of cause and effect is central to systems thinking. The field of System Dynamics, for instance, develops cause-effect models or "causal" chains and uses them to think about the way causes produce effects throughout the system and the different types of feedback loops that result and can often lead to unanticipated outcomes. In effect, you are describing the chain of thinking in a system: "X leads to Y which leads to Z, and so on, and so on.../p>

The notion of causality is critically important in systems evaluation. It is central to theory of change approaches to evaluation, to path analysis, to theory-driven approaches, and to much more. In program logic models there is a general idea of causality - activities are expected to produce outputs and to lead to short-, medium-, and long-term outcomes and ultimately impacts. However, one problem with traditional logic models is that they are "columnar" in nature. The entire set of program activities, or outputs for each phase of outcomes are typically treated as a whole. That is, in traditional logic modeling while we expect that program activities produce outcomes, we usually do not specify which activities are expected to produce which outcomes. In other words, traditional logic models do not spell out the specific cause-effect relationships that are expected.

Because systems thinking suggests that distinguishing different cause-effect chains can be important, we prefer program logic models that describe the specific causal pathways involved in programs. For example, typical programs usually involve multiple activities, outputs and outcomes. In a pathway approach, you would specify each connection that you think might be relevant. You might specify that activity A affects short-term outcomes A and C, which in turn affect medium-term outcomes E and F, and long-term outcomes A and D. You might also expect that there will be feedback loops in your model. For instance, changing the results of a short-term outcome could trigger a change in another short-term outcome that then reverberates in or feeds back to the first outcome.

This kind of causal pathway model is useful in telling the story of the program and is essential in developing a high-quality evaluation of it. A program model is likely to have many pathways from activities to outcomes. Drawing pictures of the pathway model enables you to understand better how you think your program should operate. It is especially useful to trace the "through-lines" of your program, the major causal paths through the model of your program. The through-line points out program activities that may not lead to any outcomes and helps you to identify key outcomes that should be measured.