Observing Causal Mechanisms with Process-Tracing Methods – The Benefits of Using a ‘Mechanism’ Understanding of Causality

44 Pages Posted: 24 Aug 2010

See all articles by Rasmus Brun Pedersen

Rasmus Brun Pedersen

Aarhus University - Department of Political Science

Derek Beach

University of Aarhus

Date Written: August 24, 2010

Abstract

What type of understanding of causality should be used in process-tracing case study research? We contend that process-tracing methods will profit from adopting a ‘mechanistic’ ontology of causation, where a theorized causal mechanism is conceptualized as a series of interacting parts composed of entities that undertake activities that transmit causal forces from the explanatory variable(s) through a mechanism to produce a given outcome Y. In this understanding, we argue that the each of the parts of a causal mechanism should be treated as necessary parts that have to be present in a given case, thereby also enabling causal inferences to be made in a single case design when coupled with Bayesian logic. However, process-tracing is not a panacea for everything, and as we will expand upon, causal inferences can only be made using process-tracing methods as regards whether the individual parts of a mechanism are necessary and whether a causal mechanism is sufficient to produce an outcome in a specific case. We illustrate the promise and difficulties with the proposed process-tracing methodology by conceptualizing and operationalizing the bureaucratic politics theory of foreign policy.

Suggested Citation

Pedersen, Rasmus Brun and Beach, Derek, Observing Causal Mechanisms with Process-Tracing Methods – The Benefits of Using a ‘Mechanism’ Understanding of Causality (August 24, 2010). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1664660 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1664660

Rasmus Brun Pedersen

Aarhus University - Department of Political Science ( email )

Bartholins Allé è
DK-8000 Aarhus, 8000
Denmark

Derek Beach (Contact Author)

University of Aarhus ( email )

Nordre Ringgade 1
DK-8000 Aarhus C, 8000
Denmark

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