Cause and Consequence

The historian, like the insurance investigator, sifts through evidence to determine the causes of events — often from a multitude of possibilities. Unlike the investigator, though, the historian is also interested in the event’s consequences. Western History/Genealogy Department, Denver Public Library

In examining both tragedies and accomplishments in the past, we are usually interested in the questions of how and why. These questions start the search for causes: what were the actions, beliefs, and circumstances that led to these consequences?

In history, as opposed to geology or astronomy, we need to consider human agency. People, as individuals and as groups, play a part in promoting, shaping, and resisting change.

People have motivations and reasons for taking action (or for sitting it out), but causes go beyond these. For example, the Vancouver anti-Chinese riot of 1887 certainly involved the racial attitudes and motivations of the white workers who rampaged. Did the workers cause the riot? In some sense they did. But the causes must be set in the larger context of employers paying Chinese workers a fraction of the regular wage rate and the desperate situation of Chinese Canadian workers after the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railroad.

Causes are thus multiple and layered, involving both long-term ideologies, institutions, and conditions, and short-term motivations, actions and events. Causes that are offered for any particular event (and the priority of various causes) may differ, based on the scale of the history and the approaches of the historian.