Process Tracing for applied linguistics

Thomas, Nathan; Hultgren, Anna Kristina; Zuaro, Beatrice; Yuksel, Dogan; Wingrove, Peter; Nao, Marion and Beach, Derek (2024). Process Tracing for applied linguistics. Research Methods in Applied Linguistics, 3(2), article no. 100118.



A key mission of many applied linguists is to understand how language-related processes work. The inner workings of a process can be explained by theorizing about the underlying causal mechanism that enables the process to unfold and evidencing the mechanism with empirical material. However, the methodological repertoire of applied linguistics is limited in this regard. Thus, we step outside of our field-specific literature and showcase Process Tracing, a family of qualitative, within-case research methods often used in political science to trace causal mechanisms. We describe Process Tracing's key tenets that are applicable to most variations. We then refer specifically to the systems understanding of Process Tracing. This variation views mechanisms as systems with interlocking parts. Each part is theorized to transmit causal force from a hypothesized cause to an outcome. Our concentrated focus enables us to provide specific recommendations for researchers looking to maximize the method's practical explanatory power without over-formalizing its procedures. As such, our coverage bridges the gap between broad introductions to Process Tracing currently available in applied linguistics and an increasingly technical literature found elsewhere. We also provide a preliminary state-of-the-art review of studies that have claimed to use Process Tracing in applied linguistics, often to very different ends. Finally, we demonstrate how we have applied the systems understanding of Process Tracing in one of our own studies as a methodological exemplar. We conclude with a call for researchers to explore the affordances of Process Tracing alongside us as we adapt it for future use in applied linguistics.

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