Cause, Effect, and the Structure of the Social World

47 Pages Posted: 23 May 2023 Last revised: 15 Nov 2023

See all articles by Megan T. Stevenson

Megan T. Stevenson

University of Virginia School of Law

Date Written: May 11, 2023


This Essay is built around a central empirical claim: that most reforms and interventions in the criminal legal space are shown to have little lasting effect when evaluated with gold standard methods. While this might be disappointing from the perspective of someone hoping to learn what levers to pull to achieve change, I argue that this teaches us something valuable about the structure of the social world. When it comes to the type of limited-scope interventions that lend themselves to high-quality evaluation, social change is hard to engineer. Stabilizing forces push people back towards the path they would have been on absent the intervention. Cascades—small interventions that lead to large and lasting changes—are rare. And causal processes are complex and context-dependent, meaning that a success achieved in one setting may not port well to another.

This has a variety of implications. It suggests that a dominant perspective on social change—one that forms a pervasive background for academic research and policymaking—is at least partially a myth. Understanding this shifts how we should think about social change and raises important questions about the process of knowledge generation.

Suggested Citation

Stevenson, Megan, Cause, Effect, and the Structure of the Social World (May 11, 2023). Available at SSRN: or

Megan Stevenson (Contact Author)

University of Virginia School of Law ( email )

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