Although more scholars have used archival evidence to analyze foreign policy in recent years, relatively little has been written on the methods involved in using archives as well as the evidentiary value of different types of documents. Analyses of foreign policy decisions often make use of narratives or process-tracing. Process-tracing should uncover the causal mechanisms wherever possible in order to explain foreign policy decisions. Primary sources are extremely useful in uncovering causal mechanisms, whether public opinion, bureaucratic politics, advisory group dynamics, or psychological processes. Through archival evidence, the researcher can capture how policymakers perceived the world at the time, unbiased by hindsight, and their calculations. Because psychological evidence shows that people do not necessarily know what influenced their decision, scholars should not necessarily take at face value the reasons that policymakers give for their actions. It is useful for political scientists to carry out their own archival research because historians have different implicit theories and may not gather data of relevance to the theories being tested. In addition, through examining the documents, political scientists may be able to discriminate between competing historical interpretations of the same event. It is important to interpret documents within their historic, situational, and communication contexts. The document’s place in the policy process—the sequence of memos and discussions—helps to determine its meaning and impact on the final decision. In order to interpret statements that are apt to be biased by instrumental motives, the investigator should consider who said what to whom under what circumstances and with what purpose.
Deborah Welch Larson
Process tracing is a research method for tracing causal mechanisms using detailed, within-case empirical analysis of how a causal process plays out in an actual case. Process tracing can be used both for case studies that aim to gain a greater understanding of the causal dynamics that produced the outcome of a particular historical case and to shed light on generalizable causal mechanisms linking causes and outcomes within a population of causally similar cases. This article breaks down process tracing as a method into its three core components: theorization about causal mechanisms linking causes and outcomes; the analysis of the observable empirical manifestations of the operation of theorized mechanisms; and the complementary use of comparative methods to enable generalizations of findings from single case studies to other causally similar cases. Three distinct variants of process tracing are developed, illustrated by examples from the literature.
Theory and evidence about causal mechanisms, at some point (probably) long ago, reached the carrying capacity for integration into knowledge through expression in words alone. Causal mechanisms, through the implementation of systemism in the discipline of international relations, need clarifying. Systemism is used to convey and analyze the contents of a primary source, Causes of War, by Jack Levy and William Thompson. Explaining war is the most long-standing empirical problem, in the sense of Laudan, in the field of international relations. (Laudan suggested, quite helpfully, a shift from empirical content to problem-solving ability for assessing theories with regard to scientific progress.) The diagrammatic approach from systemism is used to translate a narrative from Levy and Thompson into a series of figures that include causal mechanisms from respective areas of theorizing about the causes of war. The overall purpose of this exercise is to show how the approach from systemism possesses the potential to convey causal mechanisms in a way that facilitates scientific progress. All of this augurs well for a visual turn—toward approaches, such as systemism, that can help to more effectively assemble the massive amount of information now available into knowledge about international relations. Systemism’s essence has been conveyed by its most long-standing exponent, Bunge: a commitment to building comprehensive theories. Systemism transcends reductionism and holism as the other available “coherent views” with respect to operation of a social system. Instead of theorizing at the level of the system (holism) or its components (reductionism), systemism allows for linkages operating at macro- and microlevels, along with back and forth between them. Systemism also includes inputs from, and outputs to, the environment. This comprehensive procedure facilitates the comparison of alternative visions regarding cause and effect. Thus systemism is an approach rather than a substantive theory. One of its distinguishing merits is a capacity to facilitate criticism and comparison of theories through their representation in diagrams that are constructed under a set of rules to convey causal mechanisms.
Capitalist peace theory (CPT) has gained considerable attention in international relations theory and the conflict literature. Its proponents maintain that a capitalist organization of an economy pacifies states internally and externally. They portray CPT either as a complement or as a substitute to other liberal explanations such as the democratic peace thesis. They, however, disagree about the facet of capitalism that is supposed to reduce the risk of political violence. Key contributions have identified three main drivers of the capitalist peace phenomenon: the fiscal constraints that a laissez-faire regimen puts on potentially aggressive governments, the mollifying norms that a capitalist organization creates; and the increased ability of capitalist governments to signal their intentions effectively in a confrontation with an adversary. Defining capitalism narrowly through the freedom entrepreneurs enjoy domestically, this article evaluates the key causal mechanisms and empirical evidence that have been advanced in support of these competing claims. The article argues that CPT needs to be based on a narrow definition of capitalism and that it should scrutinize motives and constraints of the main actors more deeply. Future contributions to the CPT literature should also pay close attention to classic theories of capitalism, which all considered individual risk taking and the dramatic changes between booms and busts to be key constitutive features of this form of economic governance. Finally, empirical tests of the proposed causal mechanism should rely on data sets in which capitalists appear as actors and not as “structures.” If the literature takes these objections seriously, CPT could establish itself as central theory of peace and war in two respects. First, it could serve as an antidote to the theory of imperialism and other “critical” approaches that see in capitalism a source of conflict rather than of peace. Second, it could become an important complement to commercial liberalism that stresses the external openness rather than the internal freedoms as an economic cause of peace and that particularly sees trade and foreign direct investment as pacifying forces.