Causal Inference in Archival Research

35 Pages Posted: 1 Jun 2015

Date Written: 2014


International relations scholars increasingly employ archival research in order to test a range of hypotheses that open up the ‘black box’ of foreign policymaking, to mitigate the biases that a reliance on secondary sources might impose, and to conduct richer case studies that assess causal mechanisms and account for psychological and other factors that affect decisionmaking (see e.g. Deborah Larson 2001), but several problems for successful causal inference remain unresolved. Alexander George and Andrew Bennett (2005: 103-104) warn that “the possibility of erroneous interpretation of the significance of archival documents is enormous” and lament the absence of research that “provides an adequate discussion of the problems of weighing the evidentiary worth of archival materials.” Larson, similarly, had observed that critics “complain that case studies are unscientific because history can say anything you want,” that political scientists should turn to primary documents to “discriminate between competing explanations of the same event,” but “there is no guidebook for political scientists on how to use primary sources”(2001, 342-343). Two important advances, by Marc Trachtenberg (2006, especially Chapter 5) and Scott Frisch et al (2012), have focused, respectively, on assessing individual documents’ content and interpreting this in the context of public sources and existing scholarly literature, and on measurement and data collection (particularly for future quantitative analysis).

Suggested Citation

Darnton, Christopher, Causal Inference in Archival Research (2014). APSA 2014 Annual Meeting Paper, Available at SSRN:

Christopher Darnton (Contact Author)

The Catholic University of America ( email )

United States

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