Alan M. Jacobs, "Process Tracing and Ideational Theories", November 2011

This paper draws on current practice in the qualitative study of ideas to elaborate a set of process-tracing strategies through which scholars can empirically evaluate ideational theories. The paper argues, first, that ideational processes possess qualities that pose particular problems for causal inference. These qualities pose particularly severe problems for correlational methods (whether small-n comparative or large-n statistical). Yet features of ideational causation -- especially the difficulty of measuring the independent variable and the unobservability of individual-level cognitive dynamics -- can also pose serious difficulties for process-tracing. Having established these key challenges, the paper outlines a series of within-case analytical strategies that, used cautiously, can help scholars empirically discriminate between ideational and materialist explanations of outcomes. A central theme of this discussion is that process-tracing of ideational effects benefits from an expansive empirical scope. While it may be tempting for the ideational analyst to zero in on key moments of political decision -- on the handful of elite actors who were “at the table” and on the reasons that they provided for their choices -- a tight focus on critical choice points will rarely be empirically sufficient. To persuasively test ideational theories, our analytic field of view must encompass broader intellectual, sociological, and institutional processes unfolding over considerable periods of time. A well-specified theory of ideas will imply a series of predictions about the observable footprints that ideational mechanisms should leave on a political terrain at multiple points in time and levels of aggregation: not only on individual elites’ statements but also on sequences of events, on flows of information, on organizational membership, on institutional routines, and on the outcomes being explained. Taken together, strategies of textual, temporal, organizational, institutional, and outcome analysis can help analysts persuasively distinguish ideational accounts from the materialist or rationalist alternatives. In outlining and illustrating these strategies, the paper also assesses their respective limitations and the conditions under which each can be employed. It also emphasizes the need, in the interpretation of process evidence, for careful and explicit reasoning about the strategic logic of argumentation and choice generated by the political and institutional environment.