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Diagramming for development 2: exploring interrelationships
Diagramming for development 2: exploring interrelationships

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3.3 Multiple cause diagram


Multiple cause diagrams show the various causes of a certain event or situation and the relationships between the variables. They show causal chains of why something has occurred.


In development studies and development intervention a distinction is often usefully made between issues of structure and issues of agency. Spray diagrams, systems maps and influence diagrams focus on structural elements of a situation; sometimes including 'agents' or stakeholders but little or no detail on their precise 'agency'. Multiple cause diagrams illustrate the agency (the process) of change. Various causes of a certain event or situation are represented, and relationships between variables in a given situation are investigated.

A multiple cause diagram goes a step further than an influence diagram. Whereas an influence diagram describes the capacity of structural components to exert weak and strong influences at any one time, a multiple cause diagram specifically focuses on actual causes over a period of time. Tracing back the various causes of a problem - or contributors to a solution - can help to improve intervention. As well as showing the causes themselves, multiple cause diagrams show how they are interlinked.

Multiple cause diagrams explore why something has happened (often why something went wrong) or why a situation is as it is (often why a problem recurs). They don't predict behaviour, but can be used to create a checklist of factors (or variables) when considering comparable circumstances in the future.

They can also be useful in identifying solutions to problems: for instance, having identified two possible points of intervention to avoid an event, the diagram might show that intervening at one of them is likely to be more effective.

Diagram components

Figure 4 Format of a multiple cause diagram
Figure 4 Format of a multiple cause diagram
  • A title explaining the event or state you are trying to explain. The diagram addresses the question: what caused this?
  • Phrases depicting a state (e.g. impoverished community), a variable (something that has a value that can go up or down) relating to a state (e.g. poverty), or an event (e.g. implementation of structural adjustment programme or some form of armed intervention)
  • Arrows depicting the direction of causality
  • Chains or loops of causality.

Conventions and guidelines

A multiple cause diagram looks a bit like an influence diagram. However, whereas the arrows in an influence diagram signal the capacity to influence at any one point of time (that is, in providing a snapshot), the arrows of a multiple cause diagram signal an actual path of causality over a sequence of time. In a multiple cause diagram:

  • A title is essential naming the prime factor or event being explored.
  • Begin at the factor/ event to be explained and work backwards. Start with the immediate (proximate) causes and move to more distant causes.
  • Phrases are used to relate either to a state, a variable or to an event. These cause, directly or indirectly, the main event we are looking at. It is not necessary to encircle phrases, although putting blobs around selected variables you wish to emphasize as being important, might improve clarity.
  • Arrows indicate the causal connections between the phrases. The arrows can mean 'contributes to', 'leads to' or 'enables'. In general arrows are not labelled. However, it is acceptable to do so if you wish to add information about the type of causal connection where this is either not clear or actually misleading. For example drawing an arrow from 'armed intervention' to 'poverty' signals an affirmative causal link: armed conflict causes poverty! If you wished to argue that armed intervention had an opposite causal effect in a particular situation (i.e., armed intervention reduced poverty) it would be appropriate to label the arrow with 'reduces'. In general, where an increase in one variable leads to a decrease in the second variable, a label on the arrow is required.
  • The diagram can be sequential or it might contain loops.

Activity 5 Animated tutorial 2

Watch the animated tutorial (click on ‘View’) below this paragraph to see how I built up my multiple cause diagram of the WWP. If you are still a bit unsure about what a multiple cause diagram is you might like to view the optional animation, What is a multiple cause diagram?, before viewing the WWP examples.

This element is no longer supported and cannot be used.

Click on WWP multiple cause diagram [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] to see the description of the animated tutorial.