How to do Process Tracing: A Method for Testing “How Change Happened” in Complex and Dynamic Settings

Published: November 2022

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Process tracing is a causal methodology that can help people to understand how a particular large-scale change actually happened within a complex dynamic environment. Much of the existing literature provides important information about the method; the authors wrote this brief to help more people operationalize the concepts and learn about practical steps for using this method more easily, with quality, and toward a more equitable world.

Greater use of this methodology by evaluators could help nonprofits, funders, and other social change agents achieve greater impact by better understanding how, under what conditions, and in what contexts positive changes have been achieved. Understanding causal pathways that actually led to changes will lead to better assumptions in the future, stronger TOCs, and more meaningful ways to share lessons learned with others.

This brief explains a series of six practical steps for using the process tracing method in the context of complex systems-change efforts using participatory approaches, providing illustrative examples from our work and lifting up key considerations and potential pitfalls throughout. These steps are organized into three phases.

Other Causal Methods for Complexity