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Social Research Methods: Introduction to Process Tracing

The registrations for this course are closed. Applying for this course is not longer possible.

Date: 20 - 24 June 2022  
Early bird fee: €518 or €431(deadline 1 April 2022)
Regular fee: €575
Application deadline: 1 May 2022


Course Description

This course is offered as part of the Summer School in Social Research Methods, which is developed and coordinated by MethodsNET in collaboration with the Nijmegen School of Management, Radboud University. MethodsNET is a global methods excellence network that offers world class training in social research methods, through its top instructors from renowned universities worldwide. This course of the Summer School in Social Research Methods has a unique approach: the morning is fully dedicated to the course topics mentioned in the course description. In the afternoon, you can choose to take part in a rich set of extra optional training activities to broaden or deepen your skills and knowledge.

Process Tracing (PT) is a within case method that aims at uncovering the causal mechanism that underlies an association. Through PT, we study the “link” or “causal pathway” that connects a trigger to a certain outcome. Arguably, PT is the only qualitative method that explicitly focusses on studying causal mechanisms and that aims to understand how a particular outcome came about, moving beyond studying “mere” correlations and associations. PT is therefore an “invaluable method that should be included in every researcher’s repertoire.” (George and Bennett 2005, 224).

Over the course of five days we will discuss what causal mechanisms are, how they advance our understanding of (social) phenomena, what it means to study them, and what conclusions can be drawn on the basis of a PT. We slowly break open the “black-box of causation” and develop the theoretical background, conceptual knowledge, and practical skills necessary to conduct a full-fledged PT from theory development and case selection, to data-gathering and drawing conclusions.

This introduction to PT takes a hands-on approach applying the new insights to concrete examples and, when possible, to participants’ own research projects. Practical exercises will challenge participants to translate their own projects into PT-studies. This means most benefit is to be expected if participants are able to use parts of their own research, or research ideas, during the course.

Day 1—The course starts by positioning PT in the broader methodological field. We define PT by the interest in studying causal mechanisms in single case studies and focus on its particular strengths and weakness. We discuss what understanding of causality underlies PT and how PT relates to, but differs from and advances, other case study methods.

Day 2—Knowing what PT is, the questions arise what mechanisms are and how we can study them. We will treat mechanisms as the “causal pathway” connecting a trigger (often referred to as ‘x’) to a particular outcome (‘y’) under certain conditions. Importantly, we will talk about causal mechanisms as made up out of entities engaging in activities ensuring the productive continuity that we are interested in.

Day 3—We will use the third course day to deepen out the idea of mechanisms as “causally productive”. This is necessary, because the idea of causal productivity forces us to change our understanding of “causes”. The way we are taught think of causes, they tend to be passive descriptors: “democracy”, “education”, “migration”.  But what is it about democracy that, for instance, causes peace? What are the causal properties and how do these properties “work” to produce something? And where, then, do they show up in a mechanism?

Day 4—Day four is dedicated to causal mechanisms and evidence in practice. How can we translate theoretical propositions into propositions about mechanisms and test those propositions? Or, more inductively, how can we translate empirical observations into a theoretical causal mechanism? In other words, (how) can we proof the existence of a causal mechanism using what kind of evidence?

Day 5—On the last day we have two distinct aims. On the one hand, we will make time to present and appraise some of the causal mechanisms you developed throughout the course. What is going well? What can be improved? And are there remaining common difficulties and questions that we should address? On the other hand, and to conclude the more theoretical exploration of the method, we discuss case selection, generalization, and the (im)possibilities of combining PT with other methods.

In short: Introduction to PT provides insights into the role and value of causal mechanisms in social scientific research and provides the participants with the basic skills to set-up and follow through their own PT-study.

Course Leader

Hilde van MeegdenburgAssistant Professor of International RelationsInstitute of Political ScienceLeiden University

Learning Outcomes

After this course you are able to:

  • Explain the strengths and weakness of PT to a peer
  • Apply PT to your own research project(s)
  • Justify your selection of PT as the (an) appropriate method for your research project
  • Theoretically explain what kind of conclusions you can draw on the basis of your study

Level of participant

  • Master
  • PhD
  • Post-doc
  • Professional

The course is designed for

This PhD level course is open to all researchers aiming at bringing their research to the next level. It is particularly designed for those interested in qualitative case studies and in studying the causal mechanisms that underlay an association.

Admission Requirements

No particular requirements are asked. However, some background knowledge of qualitative case study methods will be helpful, including a rudimentary understanding of set-theory and of the possibilities and limits of comparative case studies.

Admission Documents



20 - 24 June 2022

Application Deadline

1 May 2022

Course Fee


Early Bird Discounts

  • 10% early bird discount for all applicants
  • 25% discount early bird discount for:
    • students and PhD candidates from partner universities and Radboud University
    • alumni of Radboud Summer School and Radboud University

Mode of study

This course will be offered on campus.

Number of ECTS credits

2 ECTS credits, with the possibility of an extra 1-3 ECTS credits depending on additional course work and assignments handed in during or after the summer school (for a possible total of up to 5 ECTS). For more information, visit this page.