Thomas J. Leeper > Teaching > Research Design Course > Problem Set 5

Problem Set 5: Causality


The purpose of this assignment is to assess your understanding of causal inference and your ability to evaluate claims of causality.


You are being asked to think about causality in general terms and with reference to a specific example claim of your choice. Describe the claim and evaluate whether the claim to causality is credible.

Your Task

  1. In your own words and with reference to material from lecture, class, and/or the reading list, describe what it means for a causal relationship to exist. How do we know (or at least obtain some degree of confidence) that an apparent association or correlation is causal? In other words, what does it take to make a causal inference?

  2. Consider a social scientific claim about causality (e.g., from a text from this course, from a text from another course, from the popular press, from politicians, etc.) that you find to be interesting or important. In 1-2 paragraphs, describe the claim of causality. What concepts are involved? How are the concepts measured? On what unit of analysis is claim made (e.g., country-level, individual-level, etc.)? What data or evidence support the claim?

  3. In graphical form (see Toshkov Fig. 6.1), portray the causal relationship being claimed using arrows and nodes. Include other possible causes of the outcome, other possible causes of the putatively causal variable, and any likely causal relationships among these variables. Then, describe your graph in words and articulate which of the variables may “confound” the putative causal relationship.

  4. With reference to the criteria you described in (1) and your graph in (2), assess whether the claimed causal relationship in (2) is credibly causal. If it is, be clear about why you think so but also elaborate reasons why the relationship may not be causal. Similarly, if is not a credible claim, explain why you think so but also elaborate on what factors would have to change for the relationship to be causal. If it is ambiguous, you will want to discuss what additional evidence you would need to determine whether or not it is causal.

  5. In a few sentences, briefly reflect on what was easy or difficult about this assignment and provide any feedback on the assignment for the instructor.

Submission Instructions

Your assignment should be no more than 3 pages of double-spaced A4, Times New Roman font size 12. Submit the assignment via Moodle by Tuesday, January 16.


You will receive feedback within two weeks.

Creative Commons License Except where noted, this website is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.