Identifying culture as cause: Challenges and opportunities

Evol Hum Sci. 2024 Jan 4:6:e9. doi: 10.1017/ehs.2023.35. eCollection 2024.


Causal inference lies at the core of many scientific endeavours. Yet answering causal questions is challenging, especially when studying culture as a causal force. Against this backdrop, this paper reviews research designs and statistical tools that can be used - together with strong theory and knowledge about the context of study - to identify the causal impact of culture on outcomes of interest. We especially discuss how overlooked strategies in cultural evolutionary studies can allow one to approximate an ideal experiment wherein culture is randomly assigned to individuals or entire groups (instrumental variables, regression discontinuity design, and epidemiological approach). In doing so, we also review the potential outcome framework as a tool to engage in causal reasoning in the cultural evolutionary field.

Keywords: Causal inference; culture; potential outcomes; treatment effects.