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Causal inquiry in the social sciences: the promise of process tracing

Runhardt, Rosa (2015) Causal inquiry in the social sciences: the promise of process tracing. PhD thesis, London School of Economics and Political Science.

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In this thesis I investigate causal inquiry in the social sciences, drawing on examples from various disciplines and in particular from conflict studies. In a backlash against the pervasiveness of statistical methods, in the last decade certain social scientists have focused on finding the causal mechanisms behind observed correlations. To provide evidence for such mechanisms, researchers increasingly rely on ‘process tracing’, a method which attempts to give evidence for causal relations by specifying the chain of events connecting a putative cause and effect of interest. I will ask whether the causal claims process tracers make are defensible, and where they are not defensible I will ask how we can improve the method. Throughout these investigations, I show that the conclusions of process tracing (and indeed ofthe social sciences more generally) are constrained both by the causal structure ofthe social world and by social scientists’ aims and values. My central argument is this: all instances of social phenomena have causally relevant differences, which implies that any research design that requires some comparison between cases (like process tracing) is limited by how we systematize these phenomena. Moreover, such research cannot rely on stable regularities. Nevertheless, to forego causal conclusions altogether is not the right response to these limitations; by carefully outlining our epistemic assumptions we can make progress in causal inquiry. While I use philosophical theories of causation to comment on the feasibility of a social scientific method, I also do the reverse: by investigating a popular contemporary method in the social sciences, I show to what extent our philosophical theories of causation are workable in practice. Thus, this thesis is both a methodological and a philosophical work. Every chapter discusses both a fundamental philosophical position on the social sciences and a relevant case study from the social sciences.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Additional Information: © 2015 Rosa Willemijn Runhardt
Library of Congress subject classification: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > B Philosophy (General)
Sets: Departments > Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method
Supervisor: Steele, Katie and Bovens, Luc and Cartwright, Nancy

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