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Process Tracing Methodology I – Foundations and Guidelines

Rasmus Brun Pedersen

Aarhus Universitet

Rasmus Brun Pedersen is an Associate Professor at Aarhus University. His research areas include foreign policy, european integration and qualitative methods development. He has taught numerous classes on qualitative methodology at BA, MA and PhD level, and has taught classes on process tracing at the ECPR Summer School, 2011–2017. 

Rasmus has published several research articles, books and book chapters. He co-authored Process-Tracing Methods and Causal Case Study Methods, both published by the University of Michigan Press.

twitter @RasmusBrunPeder
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 1 to Friday 5 August 2016
Generally classes are either 09:00-12:30 or 14:00-17:30
15 hours over 5 days

Due to popular demand this course will be taught as two simultaneous classes.  Participants will be contacted before the start of the Summer School to advise which class they should attend.

Prerequisite Knowledge

Some background knowledge of qualitative case study methods will be helpful, in particular the debate between scholars who argue that there is only one logic of scientific inquiry (e.g. King, Keohane and Verba, 1994) and qualitative 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). If you are unfamiliar with these debates, I would suggest skimming the chapters in the Brady and Collier edited volume (in particular chapters 1, 2, 9). 

Short Outline

This course is an introduction to Process Tracing methodology, giving participants a set of methodological tools to utilize the method in their own research. The relative strength of Process Tracing methods is that they enable us to study causal mechanisms in single case studies. Causal mechanisms are theories that detail how an outcome is produced.

The course introduces the ontological and epistemological foundations of the method, followed by a practical introduction to topics such as how we should conceptualize causal mechanisms in a manner that can be studied empirically, gathering and evaluating evidence, and case selection strategies.

The course can be taken as a stand-alone course that introduces the method, but the course is best taken together with the second week course (Process-tracing II), which offers practical, hands-on advice and techniques in relation to your own research topic.

The course requires active participation. Most benefit is to be expected if participants are able to use parts of their own research in the exercises during the course.

Long Course Outline

This workshop on Process Tracing aims to give the participant an understanding of the foundations of Process Tracing methods, but most importantly, the aim is to enable the participant to utilize Process Tracing methods in their own research by providing a set of practical research tools.

In comparison to other research methods, process-tracing as a distinct method involves research where, ‘The cause-effect link that connects independent variable and outcome is unwrapped and divided into smaller steps; then the investigator looks for observable evidence of each step.’ (Van Evera 1997:64).

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) and an outcome, allowing us to open up the ‘black box’ of causality itself.. Within political science methodology, Process Tracing 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 by differentiating Process Tracing 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 Process Tracing by the interest in studying causal mechanisms in single case studies. We discuss the three overall variants of Process Tracing designs: theory-testing, theory-building, and explaining outcome PT and provides examples of the use of the different methods.

The course provides insights into the recent debate of the role of causal mechanism in political science. Topics include how we should understand causal mechanisms (as intervening variables or systems) and how they can be conceptualized.

Conceptualization deals with translating a causal theory into a theorized causal mechanism that can explain how X produce Y. We then turn our attention to how we would focus on the questions of case selection and mixed-methods research. In what research situations can Process Tracing methods be fruitfully employed? When it is inappropriate to use Process Tracing? How can Process Tracing studies be combined in mixed-methods research designs?

Day Topic Details
Monday What is process-tracing?
Tuesday Conceptualization
Wednesday Causal mechanisms
Thursday Causal mechanisms in practice
Friday Case selection and nesting
Day Readings

King, Keohane and Verba (1994) Designing Social Inquiry: Scientific Inference in Qualitative Research. Princeton: Princeton University Press, pp. 208-230.

Bennett and Checkel (forthcoming) ‘Process Tracing: From Philosophical Roots to Best Practices.’, in Bennett and Checkel (eds) Process Tracing in the Social Sciences: From Metaphor to Analytic Tool. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Available at:

Blatter and Blume (2008) ‘In Search of Co-variance, Causal Mechanisms or Congruence? Towards a Plural Understanding of Case Studies.’, Swiss Political Science Review, 14(2): 315-356.

Beach and Pedersen (2013) Process Tracing: Foundations and Guidelines. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press Chapters 1 and 2.


Goertz and Mahoney (2012) A Tale of Two Cultures. Princeton: Princeton University Press, Chapter 11, 12, 13, pp. 139-160.

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


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

Hedström and Ylikoski (2010) ‘Causal Mechanisms in the Social Sciences.’, Annual Review of Sociology, 36: 49-67.

Gerring (2010) ‘Causal Mechanisms: Yes, But...’, Comparative Political Studies, 43(11): 1499-1526.

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


Ziblatt, Daniel. 2009. Shaping Democratic Practice and the Causes of Electoral Fraud: The Case of Nineteenth-Century Germany. American Political Science Review 103(1): 1-21.

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.


Lieberman (2005) ‘Nested Analysis as a Mixed-Method Strategy for Comparative Research.’, American Political Science Review, Vol. 99, No. 3, pp. 435-451.

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

Software Requirements


Hardware Requirements



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 After this One

<p>Process Tracing Methodoly II</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.