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Process Tracing  

Tracing the Causal Pathways between Independent and Dependent Variables

Jochem Rietveld and Seda Gürkan

This chapter illustrates process-tracing (PT), which is a qualitative within-case data analysis technique used to identify causal relations. Although there are several distinct definitions of the PT method, scholars largely agree that the process-tracing method attempts to identify the intervening causal process (or the causal chain or causal mechanism) between an independent variable and the dependent variable. The PT method can be used for theory testing and theory-building. When it is applied to theory testing, a hypothetical causal mechanism is tested against empirical evidence. The research goal is to test whether a theorized mechanism is present in a given case, or whether the mechanism functions as expected in the selected case. When tracing is applied to theory-building, the goal is to identify causal processes for which there is no available prior theoretical hypothesis in the literature. Here, the aim of the research is to develop theory.


This chapter focuses on the distinctions between historical research and social scientific research, and how these are being challenged by scholars in pursuit of a genuinely ‘historical social science’. It begins with a discussion of historical approaches in Politics and International Relations, including historical events research, historical process research, and cross-sectional comparative research. It then examines three approaches for addressing temporality as the sequential active unfolding of social action and events: historical institutionalism, process tracing, and event structure analysis. It also explains how to locate essential historical information and evaluate various types of sources, and what special considerations need to be made in using documents, archival sources, and historical writing as data in historical research.