The title of this post is not a critique, not exactly. It’s a reflection on the problem that Sen and Wasow confront. The issue that the currently dominant theory of causality in most social science—which is really an epistemology of causality rather than a theory of it—defines causality in terms of differences between outcomes in a unit that occupies both treatment and control states. This entails that the unit could in principle occupy both treatment and control states. In other words, manipulability is the foundation of studying causal effects. This “causation requires manipulation” framework is usually associated with the Rubin causal model but has a much longer pedigree in philosophy.
Our problem is that race—and other things like gender, height, etc.—is not manipulable. That means that no matter how perfect the design, the difference in outcomes between two different racial groups cannot be interpreted as “the effect of race.” This bothers many people, mostly philosophers, but also me. It suggests that our epistemology of causality must be somehow mistaken. We should be able to ask questions of the type “what is the effect of race on Y?” Reality demands it. I can’t count the number of times I’ve stayed up late debating this point.
Sen and Wasow solve the problem by appealing to a constructivist conception of race, which renders some aspects of race manipulable. It’s a smart move and one that I endorse. But I am just as eager to read a thorough critique too. One preliminary thought is that their constructivist understanding of race is situationalist, so what we manipulate is not race itself or the sticks the constitute it, but the conditions under which race is understood, encountered, produced, etc. That strikes me as somehow different than manipulating the un-manipulatable.