What Is Etiology?

A concept widely used both in Psychology and in other sciences. What does this mean exactly?

From the most remote antiquity, the human being has always wondered about the reality and the circumstances that surround its passage through the world. Where do we and what surrounds us come from? Where we go? Why do we exist? How are the creatures, conditions, and phenomena that we observe explained? And one of the questions that perhaps we have asked ourselves most when observing a phenomenon, performance or situation: what is its cause?

It is possible that when we hear a doctor, psychologist or other professional speak, at some point they use the word etiology when solving any of the above questions, a word that may be rare or unknown to most people. What is etiology? In this article we will briefly analyze this concept.

The concept of etiology

Etiology is the branch of science that is responsible for the study and analysis of the cause or genesis of things, phenomena or situations.

It is important to take into account and emphasize that it is a scientific study, analyzing and exploring the variables that the analyzed phenomena can generate. For this, experimental methodology is used for and the relationships between different variables are analyzed.

In this way, the concept of etiology would not include beliefs that have not been empirically and experimentally contrasted, even though they also try to give meaning and attribute an origin to different aspects of reality. However, although it is not a word widely used by the general population, it is often used at the popular level to talk about the cause attributed to a phenomenon even though this link has not been proven.

Analyzing a phenomenon in parts

It must be taken into account that in any natural process there are always many factors involved that influence in a more direct or indirect way on what is being studied. Therefore, through etiology an attempt is made to clarify which are the main processes or phenomena that explain something, assuming that they will probably not be the only ones and that surely there are many others behind them.

Thus, what we are trying to do is to decompose a phenomenon into parts and focus on its root, understanding that the cause of interest must provide a combination of completeness and simplicity to the explanation of what is happening.

Not just the direct cause

In addition to the causes themselves, it  also allows us to establish factors and variables that without being directly the cause participate in the genesis of what is studied or that make it difficult.

The predisposing or protective factors that participate or make the appearance of, for example, a disease less likely, are studied and analyzed. Triggers and enhancers are also worked on.

In conclusion, the variables that interact to provoke a situation are studied, taking into account that generally there is no single cause.

Etiology in the Sciences

Etiology is a science that in turn is part of many other disciplines, since the latter also explore the motive or cause of the phenomena of a certain field of knowledge. Next we are going to observe how it is applied since the etiology is dedicated in different areas.

1. Medicine

In the field of medicine, the term etiology is used to talk about the cause of diseases and disorders suffered by users or patients.

The origin of a disease is sought in order to understand the mechanism of action and how it works, and based on this knowledge, investigate and generate treatments that can cure it or alleviate its symptoms.

The causes in question are usually biological and in many cases can be very clear, despite the fact that the same disease can have different causes in different cases.

2. Psychology

In the field of psychology, etiology also looks for the causes of an individual possessing different cognitions or beliefs, whether or not they perform a specific behavior, or the factors that cause a mental disorder.

In this area, the study of causes is relatively more complex than in the previous case, since mental phenomena are not directly observable. It is necessary to extrapolate the information from the relationships established between different variables.

3. Sociology

In sociology, etiology is responsible for searching, studying and analyzing the factors that explain the origin of a certain social phenomenon.

Aspects such as leadership, the formation of a group and phenomena such as group polarization, the existence of urban tribes, beliefs and customs are examples of themes whose origin is sought in sociology (and also from social psychology).

4. Biology

As in medicine, biology also analyzes the cause or etiology of the different biological processes that occur both in our species and in others.

The origin of processes and phenomena such as reproduction, feeding, migration or the characteristics of living beings, for example, is analyzed. Depending on whether the focus is on the micro or the macro, the etiology sought will vary.

5. Right

In law the word etiology is not usually as widely used as in the health sciences, but in this area it also has its application.

Thus, the causes that have led to the commission of a crime, or of certain norms and laws, are sought, and that is the element that explains more about what happened.

Bibliographic references:

  • Aetiology. Oxford English Dictionary (2002). Oxford University Press.
  • Longmore, M., Wilkinson, I., Baldwin, A. and Wallin, E. (2014). Oxford Handbook of Clinical Medicine. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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