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Introduction to Process Tracing

Hilde van Meegdenburg

Departments of Political Science and Public Administration, Universiteit Leiden

Hilde van Meegdenburg is an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the Institute of Political Science, Leiden University. Her research focuses on international security and state foreign policy-making with a particular focus on the organisation of foreign aid and military interventions. 

Hilde has taught numerous advanced and introductory courses on process tracing and qualitative case studies throughout Europe. 

She is currently co-authoring a book with Patrick A. Mello on how to combine Process Tracing methods with Qualitative Comparative Analysis, under contract with Palgrave Macmillan.

Twitter  @Hildemeeg

Course Dates and Times

Monday 5 to Friday 9 March 2018
15 hours over 5 days

Prerequisite Knowledge

Some background knowledge of qualitative case study methods will be helpful, including an rudimentary understanding of set-theory and of the possibilities and limits of comparative case studies. Moreover, for those unfamiliar with the debate between scholars who argue that there is only one logic of scientific inquiry applicable to both qualitative and quantitative research projects (e.g. King, Keohane and Verba, 1994) and scholars who contend that there are important differences between quantitative and qualitative methods (e.g. George and Bennett, 2005; Brady and Collier, 2010; Mahoney, 2008) I suggest skimming the chapters in the Brady and Collier edited volume (in particular chapters 1, 2, 9 (see below)).

Short Outline

Process Tracing (PT) is a within-case method that focuses on tracing causal mechanisms---the actual 'link' between a trigger (X) and an outcome (Y). This course will introduce you to the essentials of this method, its main underlying assumptions, and its applicability. We will discuss what causal mechanisms are, how we can 'trace' them, and what kind of causal inferences we can draw on the bases of a process-tracing study. Moreover, to position PT in the broader methodological field we will look at how PT relates to, but differs from, other (larger- and small-N) case study methods and discuss what understanding of causality underlies process-tracing

This introduction to PT will take a hands-on approach applying the new insights to concrete examples and, when possible, to the participants' research projects. Most benefit is to be expected if participants are able to use parts of their own research in the exercises during the course. All participants are expected to have read the indicated literature, and to have familiarised themselves with case study methods more broadly and process tracing in particular.


Tasks for ECTS Credits

  • Participants attending the course: 2 credits (pass/fail grade) The workload for the calculation of ECTS credits is based on the assumption that students attend classes and carry out the necessary reading and/or other work prior to, and after, classes.
  • Participants attending the course and completing one task (see below): 3 credits (to be graded)
  • Participants attending the course, and completing two tasks (see below): 4 credits (to be graded)

Long Course Outline

This course on PT aims to give the participants an understanding of the foundations of PT-methods, and should enable participants to use PT in their own research by providing the them with practical insights and research tools.

The promise of process-tracing as a methodological tool is that it enables the researcher to study more-or-less directly the causal mechanism(s) linking an independent variable (or set of variables) to an outcome, allowing us to open up the ‘black box’ of causality itself. Within political science methodology, PT is arguably the only method that allows us to study causal mechanisms, allowing us to understand how an X (or set of X’s) produces Y instead of simply studying correlations and associations, and therefore is an ‘…invaluable method that should be included in every researcher’s repertoire.’ (George and Bennett 2005:224).

The course starts, on day 1, by differentiating PT from other methods; including both large-n quantitative, frequentist methods but also other small-n methods such as analytical narratives, comparative case studies, congruence etc. Here we define PT by the interest in studying causal mechanisms in single case studies, and we discuss the three variants of PT: theory-testing, theory-building, and explaining outcome PT.

On day 2 we will look closely at what causal mechanism are and go into some detail about the ontological and epistemological assumptions underlying PT. Most importantly however, we will talk about the causal mechanism as made up out of entities engaging in activities ensuring the  productive continuity that we are interested in.

We will use day three to talk about 'concepts' and their causal attributes in PT. To give you an idea of the type of question we will aim to answer this day, think about the following in relation to the Democratic Peace theory: What is it about democracy that causes peace (i.e. what are the causal properties of this concept)?

Day 4 is dedicated to causal mechanism in practice. We go into more detail about how to draw a causal inference on the basis a of single case study and how to execute a PT-project.

On the last day we will make time for some presentations (max. 5) of your own causal mechanisms and PT-projects, as well as go into detail about case selection, generalisation, and the (im)possibilities of combining PT with other methods.

In short: the course provides insights into the recent debate of the role of causal mechanism in political science and provides the participant with all the basics regarding the PT-method

Day Topic Details
1 What is process-tracing?

09.00 – 12.30 (incl. coffee break)

2 Causal mechanisms

09.00 – 12.30 (incl. coffee break)

3 Conceptualization

09.00 – 12.30 (incl. coffee break)

4 Causal mechanisms in practice

09.00 – 12.30 (incl. coffee break)

5 Case selection

09.00 – 12.30 (incl. coffee break)

Day Readings

Beach and Pedersen (2013) Process Tracing: Foundations and Guidelines. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press Chapter 3, 4.

Machamer, Peter, Lindley Darden, and Carl F. Craver. 2000. 'Thinking about Mechanisms'. Philosophy of Science 67(1): 1–25.

Owen (1994) ‘How Liberalism Produces Democratic Peace.’, International Security, Vol. 19, No. 2 (Fall 1994) pp. 87-125).


Process-Tracing Methods: Foundations and Guidelines. Michigan: University of Michigan Press.  Chapters 1 and 2.

Process Tracing: From Metaphor to Analytic Tool, eds. Andrew Bennett and Jeffrey T. Checkel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 3–37.

The Oxford Handbook of Political Methodology, eds. Janet M Box-steffensmeier, Henry E Brady, and Collier David. Oxford, 217–70. Read to page 249 only.


Goertz and Mahoney (2012) A Tale of Two Cultures. Princeton: Princeton University Press, Chapters 10, 11, 13, pp. 127-149, pp.161-173

Beach and Pedersen (2016) Conceptualization chapter. To be provided.


Collier, David. 2011. “Understanding Process Tracing.” Political Science & Politics 44(04): 823–30.

Owen (1994) ‘How Liberalism Produces Democratic Peace.’, International Security, Vol. 19, No. 2 (Fall 1994) pp. 87-125).

Brast, Benjamin. (2015) The Regional Dimension of Statebuilding Interventions. International Peacekeeping 22(1): 81-99.


Beach and Pedersen (2016) ‘Case selection when studying mechanisms’. Sociological Research methods.

Ahmed, Amel, and Rudra Sil. 2012. “When Multi-Method Research Subverts Methodological Pluralism—or, Why We Still Need Single-Method Research.” Perspectives on Politics 10(4): 935–53.


Beyond the above course literature, the following are cited above.

Brady, Henry E. & David Collier (eds.) (2010) Rethinking Social Inquiry: Diverse Tools, Shared Standards. Second edition. Lanham, MD: Rowman Littlefield.

George, Alexander L. & Bennett, Andrew (2005) Case studies and Theory Development in the Social Sciences Cambridge, Massachusetts, London: MIT Press.

Mahoney, James (2008) ‘Toward a Unified Theory of Causality.’, Comparative Political Studies, Vol. 41, No. 4/5, pp. 412-436.

Recommended Courses to Cover Before this One

<p><strong>Summer School</strong></p> <p>Case Study Research: Method and Practice</p> <p>Logitudinal Case Studies</p> <p>Qualitative Comparative Methods (2 week introduction)</p> <p>&nbsp;</p>

Recommended Courses to Cover After this One

<p><strong>Summer School</strong></p> <p>Process tracing methods 2/ Advanced Process Tracing</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><strong>Winter School</strong></p> <p>Process tracing methods 2/ Advanced Process Tracing</p> <p>Advanced Multi-Method Research</p> <p>Historical Methods for Social Scientists</p>

Additional Information


This course description may be subject to subsequent adaptations (e.g. taking into account new developments in the field, participant demands, group size, etc). Registered participants will be informed at the time of change.

By registering for this course, you confirm that you possess the knowledge required to follow it. The instructor will not teach these prerequisite items. If in doubt, please contact us before registering.