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

  • Jochen Glaser TU Berlin
  • Grit Laudel TU Berlin
Keywords: qualitative content analysis, causal mechanism, process tracing, case studies, structured focused comparison, comparative methodology


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.


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Author Biographies

Jochen Glaser, TU Berlin

Dr. Jochen GLÄSER is professor for social studies of science and technology at Technical University Berlin. His research interests include the relationship between epistemic practices and social structures of scientific communities, qualitative methodology, and methods of science studies.

Grit Laudel, TU Berlin

Dr. Grit LAUDEL is a senior researcher at the Institute of Sociology, Technical University Berlin. Her research interests include the influence of institutions (e.g., funding, evaluations, academic careers) on the content of scientific research, the methodology and methods of qualitative research, and the methodology and methods of science studies.

Conceptualizations of Qualitative Content Analysis