Methods: In this oral presentation we discuss the “Clock and Grid” (C&G) method, a graphical approach to identifying the inventory of backdoor paths and then subsequently reducing this inventory to one or more sufficient sets. The Clock approach minimizes the risk of overlooking backdoor paths by using a counterclockwise motion to exhaustively follow all paths into and out of each variable, starting from the exposure and ending at the outcome. This counterclockwise motion around each variable is repeated until it returns to the starting point. We enter the inventory of paths into a table, with one row for each path. The Grid of variables is constructed from the inventory, listing each variable in its own column. A structured approach, of circling variables and crossing out rows in which these variables appear, identifies variables that must be included in the sufficient set. When complete, all sufficient sets will be identified.
Results: We demonstrate several examples to which we have applied the C&G approach. These include published DAGs in the didactic literature and in social work research. C&G correctly inventories the backdoor paths and identifies the sufficient sets that these authors found. We then applied C&G to examples from our own work, helping us to identify the set of variables that must be conditioned. In many cases, easy-to-miss paths, overlooked using an ad hoc approach, were found.
Conclusions and Implications: Social work researchers are beginning to rely on DAGs as a tool for causal inference. They can aid in measuring or identifying appropriate variables and choosing a method that might best eliminate backdoor paths. They can also be used, as shown by the C&G approach, to identify covariates for conditioning in regression. This has the potential to encourage the field to undertake more and improved causal research, in both research design and analyses of secondary data. Identifying the backdoor paths and sufficient sets can be challenging when confronted with complex DAGs. The C&G approach described here includes a thorough, ordered approach to identifying paths that is intended to minimize errors and extract the sufficient sets from the inventory.