Introducing Process Tracing to Shed New Light on Causal Mechanisms in Applied Linguistics

Thomas, Nathan; Hultgren, Anna Kristina; Zuaro, Beatrice; Yuksel, Dogan; Wingrove, Peter; Nao, Marion and Beach, Derek (2023). Introducing Process Tracing to Shed New Light on Causal Mechanisms in Applied Linguistics. In: BAAL 2023 (British Association for Applied Linguistics, 56th Annual Conference), 23-25 Aug 2023, University of York, York, UK.


A key mission of most Applied Linguists is not only to describe but also to explain why certain linguistic phenomena occur. However, the extent to which causality in Applied Linguistics, and the Social Sciences more broadly, can and should be modelled on that in the Natural and Physical Sciences has been rightly questioned (Byrne & Callaghan, 2013). As Larsen-Freeman and Cameron (2008) note: “In a complex world, we lose predictability; the nature of explanation changes; cause and effect work differently” (p. 71).

In this presentation, we showcase the potential of Process Tracing, a method used in Political Science and other fields, but rarely used in Applied Linguistics, to approach the vexed issue of causality. Theoretically framed within critical realism (Sayer, 2000), Process Tracing is a qualitative, case-based research method that seeks to trace the mechanism(s) between a hypothesized cause and an outcome. Process Tracers work in ways not unlike detectives, collecting data (‘observables’) to empirically assess the validity of their hypothesis (Beach & Pedersen, 2019).

To illustrate how the method can be used, we draw from two ongoing projects that utilize Process Tracing at macro and micro levels. First, we will discuss Process Tracing applied to a macro-level project: ELEMENTAL, a UKRI-funded interdisciplinary research project that aims to illuminate the linkages between a hypothesized cause (higher education governance reforms) and its outcome (the rise of EMI across Europe). Second, we discuss Process Tracing at a micro level via a series of research studies that traced the psychological processes individual students enacted to complete challenging academic tasks. By exemplifying the rigour and innovation of Process Tracing at both levels, we argue for widening the methodological toolkit in Applied Linguistics in order to shed new light on causal mechanisms. We also consider how theoretical and methodological positioning shapes the creation of knowledge.


Beach, D. and R. Brun Pedersen. 2019. Process-tracing methods: Foundations and guidelines. University of Michigan Press.

Byrne, D. and G. Callaghan. 2013. Complexity Theory and the Social Sciences: The state of the art. Taylor and Francis.

Larsen-Freeman, D. and L. Cameron. 2008. Complex systems and Applied Linguistics. Oxford University Press.

Sayer, A. 2000. Realism and Social Science. Sage.

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