Process-tracing methods

Course summary

This hands-on course gives you the methodological tools to refine your use of process-tracing methods in your own substantive research. It will also enable you to embed process-tracing case studies in mixed-methods research design. The course is designed for participants who are conducting process-tracing research, and want to bring their research to the next level. The course requires active participation.

The promise of process tracing as a methodological tool is that it enables the researcher to study how things work within cases, in which the causal process(es) linking a cause (or set of causes) and an outcome are unpacked and traced empirically. The ‘black box’ of causality itself is opened up through disaggregating a causal process into its constituent parts, composed of entities engaging in activities. Tracing the empirical manifestations these activities leave in actual cases involves collecting observational evidence upon which we can make causal inferences about how processes actually work.

Topics included in the morning sessions include discussing how to distinguish process tracing from other methods; including large-n variance-based methods, but also other small-n case-based methods such as analytical narratives and comparative case studies. This is followed by discussions of how processual theories can be developed and improved, focusing on how to capture the activities and their underlying causal linkages in order to understand how a process works and evidence it empirically.

We also discuss how inferences can be made using within-case evidence, and the challenges relating to the evaluation of evidence. We also address questions of case selection, generalization and mixed/multi-methods in the final morning session.

Format and activities

The workshop will be intense and requires the participants to be fully engaged throughout. The indicative timetable is 9.00-12:00 and 13:00-16:00 approximately.

The workshop will include various types of activities. Morning sessions will involve lectures and discussions about key methodological issues. In the afternoons, we will discuss aspects of participants' projects, including theories of causal mechanisms and how we can develop testable predictions about evidence that the activities associated with parts of mechanisms might leave in a given case.

The afternoons of Days 1 & 2 will be devoted to presentation and discussion of theories of causal mechanisms prepared by each participant. In the afternoon sessions on Days 3 & 4, we turn to presentation and discussion of observable manifestations of the activities of parts of mechanisms of each participant, followed on Day 5 by a discussion of why participants chose particular cases.

Prerequisite Knowledge

You must be using in-depth process-tracing methods in your current research project (PhD, postdoc or other research), and be advanced enough in your project that you have  at least an initial sketch of a process theory, along with ideas about potential empirical observations that we can work with during the course.

You must be familiar with the recent literature on case study methods (post 2010), and I assume familiarity with basic concepts related to process tracing. In particular, you should have basic knowledge about debates about what causal mechanisms are, along with different types of empirical tests and how they are used in case studies.

Preparatory work

The participants will receive a number of preparatory readings that they will be asked to have done before the workshop starts. Submission before the course of a theorised causal mechanism and empirical propositions are required (by October 10th to the relevant folder in the Google Drive site (more information to be provided)).

About the instructor

Derek Beach is a professor of Political Science at the University of Aarhus, Denmark, where he teaches case study and evaluation methodology, and EU politics. He has authored articles, chapters, and books on research methodology, international negotiations, referendums, and European integration, and co-authored the books Process-tracing Methods: Foundations and Guidelines (2019, 2nd edition) and Causal Case Study Methods: Comparing, Matching and Tracing (2016) (both with the University of Michigan Press). He has taught case study methods at ECPR and IPSA summer and winter schools, held short courses at the APSA annual meeting on Process-tracing, ICPSR (Michigan), and numerous workshops and seminars on case-based methods throughout the world. He is an academic coordinator of the Methods Excellence Network (MethodsNet).

Indicative readings

  • Beach (2023) “Process Tracing Methods.”. Oxford Research Encyclopedia, 2nd edition.
  • Winward, Mark. 2021. “Intelligence Capacity and Mass Violence: Evidence From Indonesia.” Comparative Political Studies, 54(3-4): 553-584. DOI: 10.1177/0010414020938072. (Case-based – note there is also an online appendix that details evidence)
  • Beach and Pedersen (2019) Process-tracing methods. 2nd Edition, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.