Process Tracing – A Methods Workshop

Since George & Bennett’s influential book “Case Studies and Theory Development in the Social Sciences” was published in 2005, qualitative work in the social sciences increasingly claims to identify “causal mechanisms” and to apply a technique called “process tracing”. But what does “process tracing” actually mean and how can we use it for better qualitative research?

In order to update our knowledge of this method, which we apply in several research projects (e.g. in “The Politics of Law and Order”  or in “The Political Economy of Private Security“) and to give other, especially young scholars, at the University of Kaiserslautern a chance to get to know it first hand, Georg Wenzelburger invited Peter Starke to come to Kaiserslautern. Prof. Dr. Peter Starke, University of Southern Denmark, has not only applied the method intensively in his own research but has also published a very good German handbook article on the subject.

Peter Starke (on the right) discussing individual research projects with two participants

Supported by the TU-Nachwuchsring (network for the promotion of young scientists)  the short methods workshop was held from the 12th to the 13th of March. On the first day, Peter Starke introduced the participants to the basis of good qualitative research in social sciences: the case selection. Whereas quantitative research can draw on large numbers of cases or even random sampling, qualitative research dealing with a few or even only one case needs to pay special attention to case selection in order to avoid methodological pitfalls. After also discussing the notion of causal mechanisms (in difference to a simple X-Y relationship), Professor Starke began the second day by illustrating the use of certain “tests” in process tracing which help to assess the weight of a particular piece of evidence speaking in favor or against a hypothesized causal mechanism. The workshop concluded by also considering “best practices” of process tracing as well as the drawbacks of the method.

Throughout the whole workshop Peter Starke encouraged and gave ample opportunity for the participants to directly apply the learned lessons to their own research. In direct talks he offered his help with any individual problems within a particular research project. The diversity of the participants, who came from different disciplines and three faculties of the University, led to a lively interdisciplinary debate and also showed the methodological potential of process tracing beyond political science and policy analysis.

Helge Staff