Process Tracing, Causal Inference, and Civil War

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Jason Lyall
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In Process Tracing in the Social Sciences: From Metaphor to Analytic Tool, eds. Andrew Bennett and Jeffrey Checkel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, Strategies for Social Inquiry Series, 2014), pp.186-207

Process tracing is an invaluable tool in the civil war scholar’s toolkit. Or, rather, it should be, for it provides the ability to move beyond statistical association toward causal inference about why (and how) outcomes are produced in civil war settings. Yet scholars have largely neglected its use. Instead, great pains have ben taken to construct research designs that (at best) are able to identify suggestive correlations between variables but lack the ability to test the mechanism(s) at work. Qualitative research is not immune to this criticism, either, for process tracing, when properly conducted, establishes a standard for rigor that often goes unmet even in detailed historical cases. This is an unfortunate state of affairs; without understanding the causal processes that underpin these associations, we foreclose opportunities to advance our theories of civil war and to contribute to policy debates about the efficacy of different policies in violent settings.

This chapter’s emphasis is on the practicalities of marrying design-based inference with the strengths of process tracing to improve our ability to build and (especially) test theories about civil war onset and dynamics. Bennett and Checkel’s (this volume) ten precepts for process tracing are used as a springboard for a discussion of how to identify and conduct rigorous process tracing in settings marked by poor (or no) data, security concerns, and fluid processes. The chapter also introduces ideas from the now-burgeoning literature on causal inference to help guide decisions about case selection and evidentiary standards. In particular, the approach advocated here draws on a potential outcomes framework that hinges on the use of counterfactual observations, “elaborate” theory, and qualitative evidence on treatment assignment to facilitate drawing causal inferences about why wars break out and how they are fought.