The Discovery of Causal Mechanisms: Extractive Qualitative Content Analysis as a Tool for Process Tracing

Jochen Glaser, Grit Laudel


With this article, we seek to contribute to the methodological discussion about the fit of qualitative methods for specific purposes by examining the role that extractive qualitative content analysis (EQCA) can play in the discovery of causal mechanisms. The methodological literature on the empirical identification of causal mechanisms (an approach called process tracing) has been dominated by the idea of empirically testing the presence of hypothesized mechanisms. We argue for the discovery of causal mechanisms on the basis of causal reconstruction as suggested by MAYNTZ (2009 [2002], 2016). We establish EQCA as a distinct qualitative method and specify its outcome—namely, a structured information base that can be used for the reconstruction of social situations and processes. Such an information base is an important source for causal analysis. We demonstrate the role of EQCA in process tracing with an empirical study by LAUDEL and BIELICK (2018), who discovered the mechanisms that produce individual research programs of early career researchers.


qualitative content analysis; causal mechanism; process tracing; case studies; structured focused comparison; comparative methodology

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