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Voss, James F., Mario Carretero, Joel Kennet, and Laurie Ney Silfies. “The Collapse of the Soviet Union: A Case Study in Causal Reasoning.” In Cognitive and Instructional Processes in History and the Social Sciences, edited by James F. Voss and Mario Carretero, 403-29. Hillsdale: Erlbaum, 1994.


This study is concerned with how people perceive historical causation. Specifically, the authors ask: “What do people believe to be the causes of historical events?” The authors asked thirty-two individuals to write an essay on the causes of the collapse of the Soviet Union and subsequently asked them to rate a list of possible causes by importance as well as show in detail how some of these causes produced the collapse. The individuals were undergraduate and graduate students as well as people not enrolled in college.

The data were analyzed into four themes: “narrative structure,” “abnormal conditions,” “necessity and sufficiency,” and “personalization of history.” Under narrative structure, the authors argue that a history narrative is not merely the telling of a story but rather that in their story telling the participants felt the need to consider an array of causes for the collapse. Similarly, in abnormal conditions the participants understood the cause of the collapse as an outcome of a number of interconnected causes and conditions. Further, within the theme necessity and sufficiency, it was clear that the participants understood the collapse as occurring because of the lack of seemingly necessary conditions. Lastly, under personalization of history the essays expressed a belief that historical events are not a consequence of the actions of one person but rather a number of individuals who were interconnected.

Drawing from this analysis the authors provide three suggestions for teachers regarding instruction: 1) instruction should emphasize the idea of multiple causation, 2) instruction should focus on the production of quality explanations, and 3) instruction should consider distant causes that may not be obvious and local.

Ana Laura Pauchulo