Short Course: Studying Causal Mechanisms Using In-depth Case Studies (QMMR 4)

Studying Causal Mechanisms Using In-depth Case Studies (QMMR 4)

Colin Elman
Half Day, 1:30 PM-5:30 PM
Marriott Wardman Park, Virginia B

The study of causal mechanisms is ubiquitous in the social sciences. Mechanism-focused research using in-depth case studies enables us to gain a better understanding of how things work and under what conditions using real-world cases instead of gaining knowledge about mean causal effects across cases based on experimentally manipulating treatments in controlled populations. However, the potential gains of mechanism-focused research have not been fully reaped in the social sciences because of the tendency to reduce mechanisms to counterfactuals, that are then investigated using hypothetical data.

Inspired by recent developments in mechanism-focused research in medicine and policy evaluation (Clarke et al, 2014; Cartwright and Hardie, 2012), the first session of the course will discuss the standards developed in the natural sciences for what constitutes a ‘good’ mechanistic explanation (Craver and Darden, 2013), and how these can be translated into social science theories. The second session will then present the developing standards in the natural sciences regarding what constitutes ‘good’ mechanistic evidence, and what this can look like in the social sciences. The final session discusses practical applications, including how mechanism-focused research can be used as an adjunct method to improve social science experiments – showing that most good experimental studies already engage in mechanism-focused case studies parallel with their experimental design, but they are just unaware of it when they are theorizing, designing the experiment, and interpreting the data.

  • Beach, Derek, and Rasmus Brun Pedersen. 2019. Process-Tracing Methods: Foundations and Guidelines. 2nd Edition. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
  • Cartwright, Nancy and Jeremy Hardie. 2012. Evidence-Based Policy: A Practical Guide to Doing It Better. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Clarke, B., D. Gillies, Phyllis Illari, Federica Russo, Jon Williamson. 2014. Mechanisms and the Evidence Hierarchy. Topoi, 33(2): 339-360.
  • Craver, Carl F. and Lindley Darden. 2013. In Search of Mechanisms: Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

**All Short Courses will take place on Wednesday, August 28, 2019 at the APSA 2019 Annual Meeting in  Washington, DC.**