Establishing causal relationships within the fabric of the social world is more challenging than in the biological or physical-chemical domains. The reasons for this difficulty are familiar — the high degree of contextuality and contingency that is characteristic of social change, the non-deterministic character of social causation, and the fact that most social outcomes are the result of unforeseen conjunctions of independent influences, to name several.
Alexander George and Andrew Bennett argue for the value of a case-study method of social research in Case Studies and Theory Development in the Social Sciences. The idea here is that social researchers can learn about the causation of particular events and sequences by examining them in detail and in comparison with carefully selected alternative examples.
Here is how they describe the case-study method:
The method and logic of structured, focused comparison is simple and straightforward. The method is “structured” in that the researcher writes general questions that reflect the research objective and that these questions are asked of each case under study to guide and standardize data collection, thereby making systematic comparison and cumulation of the findings of the cases possible. The method is “focused” in that it deals only with certain aspects of the historical cases examined. The requirements for structure and focus apply equally to individual cases since they may later be joined by additional cases. (67)
George and Bennett believe that the techniques and heuristics of the case study approach permit the researcher to arrive at rigorous and differentiated hypotheses about underlying social processes. In particular, they believe that the method of process-tracing has substantial power in social research, permitting the researcher to move from the details of a particular historical case to more general hypotheses about causal mechanisms and processes in other contexts as well (6). They discourage research strategies based on the covering-law model, in which researchers would seek out high-level generalizations about social events and outcomes: “highly general and abstract theories … are too general to make sharp theoretical predictions or to guide policy” (7). But they also note the limits of policy relevance of “independent, stable causal mechanisms” (7), because social mechanisms interact in context-dependent ways that are difficult or impossible to anticipate. It is therefore difficult to design policy interventions based on knowledge of a few relevant and operative mechanisms within the domain of behavior the policy is expected to govern, since the workings of the mechanisms in concrete circumstances are difficult to project.
Fundamentally they align with the causal mechanisms approach to social explanation. Here is how they define a causal mechanism:
We define causal mechanisms as ultimately unobservable physical, social, or psychological processes through which agents with causal capacities operate, but only in specific contexts or conditions, to transfer energy, information, or matter to other entities. In so doing, the causal agent changes the affected entity’s characteristics, capacities, or propensities in ways that press until subsequent causal mechanisms act upon it. (137)
And they believe that the case-study method is a suite of methodological approaches that permit identification and exploration of underlying causal mechanisms.
The case study approach – the detailed examination of an aspect of a historical episode to develop or test historical explanations that may be generalizable to other events – has come in and out of favor over the past five decades as researchers have explored the possibilities of statistical methods … and formal models. (5)
The case study method is designed to identify causal connections within a domain of social phenomena.
Scientific realists who have emphasized that explanation requires not merely correlational data, but also knowledge of intervening causal mechanisms, have not yet had much to say on methods for generating such knowledge. The method of process-tracing is relevant for generating and analyzing data on the causal mechanisms, or processes, events, actions, expectations, and other intervening variables, that link putative causes to observed effects. (214)
Suppose we are interested in a period of violent mobilization VM in the countryside at time t, and we observe a marked upswing of religious participation RP in the villages where we have observations. We might hypothesize that the surge of religious participation contributed causally to the political mobilization that ensued. But a process-tracing methodology requires that we we consider as full a range of alternative possibilities as we can: that both religious and political activism were the joint effect of some other social process; that religious participation was caused by political mobilization rather than caused that mobilization; that the two processes were just contingent and unrelated simultaneous developments. What can we discover within the facts of the case that would allow us to disentangle these various causal possibilities? If RP was the cause of VM, there should be traces of the influence that VM exerted within the historical record — priests who show up in the interrogation cells, organizational linkages that are uncovered through archival documents, and the like. This is the work of process tracing in the particular case. And I agree with George and Bennett that there is often ample empirical evidence available in the historical record to permit this kind of discovery.
Finally, George and Bennett believe that process-tracing can occur at a variety of levels:
The simplest variety of process-tracing takes the form of a detailed narrative or story presented in the form of a chronicle that purports to throw light on how an event came about…. A substantially different variety of process-tracing converts a historical narrative into an analytical causal explanation couched in explicit theoretical forms…. In another variety of process-tracing, the investigator constructs a general explanation rather than a detailed tracing of a causal process. (210-211)
One of the strengths of the book is an appendix presenting a very good collection of research studies that illustrate the case study methodology that they explore. There are examples from American politics, comparative politics, and international relations. These examples are very helpful because they give substance to the methodological ideas presented in the main body of the book.