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Introduction to Process Tracing

Kim Sass Mikkelsen

University of Roskilde

Kim Sass Mikkelsen is associate professor of public administration and politics at Roskilde University in Denmark, where he teaches public administration and management.

He is a methods pluralist, having contributed to qualitative methods development, and he teaches case study and statistical methods.

Substantively, Kim studies public sector human resource management in a number of countries, from Uganda to Estonia to Nepal to Brazil, using surveys of public servants and managers.

Course Dates and Times

Monday 25 February – Friday 1 March, 14:00 –17:30 (finishing slightly earlier on Friday)
15 hours over five days

Prerequisite Knowledge

Some background knowledge of qualitative case study methods would be helpful, including a rudimentary understanding of set-theory and the possibilities and limits of comparative case studies.

If you are unfamiliar with the debate between scholars who argue that there is only one logic of scientific inquiry applicable to 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 Brady and Collier edited volume, in particular chapters 1, 2, and 9.

Short Outline

Process Tracing (PT) is a within-case method that focuses on tracing causal mechanisms – the '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.

To position PT in the broader methodological field, we will look at how it relates to, but differs from, other (larger- and small-N) case study methods, and discuss what understanding of causality underlies PT.

This is a hands-on course, applying new insights to concrete examples and, when possible, to participants' own research projects.

Before you take this course, read the indicated literature, familiarise yourself with case study methods broadly, and process tracing in particular.

Tasks for ECTS Credits

2 credits (pass/fail grade) Attend at least 90% of course hours, participate fully in in-class activities, and carry out the necessary reading and/or other work prior to, and after, class.

3 credits (to be graded) As above, plus complete one task (tbc).

4 credits (to be graded) As above, plus complete two tasks (tbc).

Long Course Outline

This course aims to give the you an understanding of the foundations of process tracing methods. By the end of it, you should have the practical insights and research tools to be able to use PT in your own research.

PT is a methodological tool is that 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.

In 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. It is, therefore, an ‘…invaluable method that should be included in every researcher’s repertoire.’ (George and Bennett 2005:224).

Day 1
We differentiate PT from other methods; including large-n quantitative, frequentist methods, and small-n methods such as analytical narratives, comparative case studies, and congruence. Here we define PT by the interest in studying causal mechanisms in single case studies, and discuss the three variants of PT: theory-testing, theory-building, and explaining outcome PT.

Day 2
We look closely at what causal mechanisms are and go into some detail about the ontological and epistemological assumptions underlying PT. We talk about the causal mechanism as made up of entities engaging in activities ensuring the  productive continuity that we are interested in.

Day 3
We talk about 'concepts' and their causal attributes in PT. To give you an idea of the type of question we aim to answer, 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
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.

Day 5
We make time for a maximum of five presentations of your own causal mechanisms and PT projects. We go into detail on case selection, generalisation, and the (im)possibilities of combining PT with other methods.

The course offers insights into the recent debate surrounding the role of causal mechanism in political science, and gives you all the basics regarding the process tracing method.

Day Topic Details
1 What is process-tracing?

14:00 –17:30 (incl. coffee break)

2 Causal mechanisms

14:00 –17:30 (incl. coffee break)

3 Conceptualization

14:00 –17:30 (incl. coffee break)

4 Causal mechanisms in practice

14:00 –17:30 (incl. coffee break)

5 Case selection

14:00 –17:30 (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) Conceptualisation 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 in due time.

Note from the Academic Conveners

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, contact the instructor before registering.