Methodology (process tracing), empirics (Kyoto) and theory (corporate power)

My academic background is, um, interesting.  I have the lumpy landscape of the autodidact who has fossicked here and there, but never built a proper opencast mine, with draglines and dumptrucks and so on.

For my thesis (and possible future career?)  I am going to need more methodology (how do we find out reliable and relevant information without just confirmation biasing), more theory (who has constructed what theories for explaining institutional, organisational and social change/stability) and of course empirics of the specific cases (who did what when why and how).

To this end, I’m going to read a little of each every day (rather than binging on one of the three to the exclusion of t’others for weeks on end).  And, of course, then do a timely write-up,…

So, today, 4 papers (including one – the Vennesson – that I read yonks back and then lost in a stack of read-but-not-written-about articles).

Barley, S. (2010) Building an Institutional Field to Corral a Government: A Case to set an agenda for Organization Studies Organization Studies 31 (6) 777-805.

Hall, P. (2013) Tracing the progress of process tracing European Political Science 20 -30.

Mascher, S. (1997) Australia’s National Greenhouse Response: Implications for the Energy Sector Australian Mining and Petroleum Law Journal, 16,2, 126-133

Vennesson, P. (2008) Case study and process tracing: theories and practices  in Donatella DELLA PORTA and Michael Keating (eds), Approaches and Methodologies in the Social Sciences. A Pluralist Perspective, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2008, 223-239.

Methodology papers

Vennesson’s work should be dear to anyone who uses case studies and process tracing. He asks

 How can case studies be performed empirically, especially using process tracing, a research procedure intended to explore the processes by which initial conditions are translated into outcomes?

(Vennesson, 2008: 226)

points to the pitfalls and limits and is generally damn useful.

He identifies four types of case study- descriptive, interpretive, hypothesis-generating and theory evaluating. (This echoes the work of Robert Yin).

He talks epistemology (theory of knowledge) and points out that –

Researchers are not passive; they engage in ‘casing’, and in so doing they hope to overcome the epistemological obstacles that stem from conventional categorizations. Second, case studies are shaped by an explicit effort of theory construction. Third, case studies are not based only on assumptions about actors’ goals and preferences. An in-depth empirical investigation using different types of data-gathering methods and procedures, like process tracing, is a key component of case study research.
(Vennesson, 2008: 229)

So, you aren’t allowed to just spin theories.  Damn.


Political phenomena have clock-like (regular, orderly, predictable), cloud-like (irregular, disorderly, unpredictable) and interacting (creative, adaptive, problem-solving) characteristics; process tracing can help to uncover all three of them (Almond and Genco 1977; Jervis 1997). Process tracing also provides an opportunity to combine positivist and interpretivist approaches in the making of a case study (Lin 1998: 166–9), allowing the researcher to explore both the causal ‘what’ and the causal ‘how’.
(Vennesson, 2008: 232)

And in something that Hall (2013) will repeat, taking the viewpoints and mindsets of the actors (especially the ones that might be foreign to you) seriously is crucial –

The focus is not only on what happened, but also on how it happened. It becomes possible to use process tracing to examine the reasons that actors give for their actions and behaviour and to investigate the relations between beliefs and behaviour (Jervis 2006). Process tracing is a fundamental element of empirical case study research because it provides a way to learn and to evaluate empirically the preferences and perceptions of actors, their purposes, their goals, their values and their specification of the situations that face them. Process tracing helps the researcher to uncover, directly and indirectly, what actors want, know and compute (Simon 1985: 295).
(Vennesson, 2008: 233)

It’s not a bed of roses or a plug and play thing though.  There are, as mentioned, limitations…

Process tracing as such is no guarantee that one will successfully conduct an empirical investigation. Case study research in general and process tracing in particular face four main challenges: the reliance on pre-existing theories; the assumption that each case can be treated autonomously and that the cases are distinct from one another; the need for empirical data; and the pitfalls of cognitive biases (see also Collier and Mahoney 2006; Checkel 2006: 367–9). While these limits are not all specific to case study and process tracing, they are particularly relevant in this type of research. The first limit regards theories. In case study research, the case selection, the comparison, the within-case analysis and the empirical investigation are all theory-dependent. Case study research and process tracing presuppose the existence of theoretical frameworks.

These frameworks are supposed to guide the researcher in his approach, as in his empirical work. But time and again, case study specialists recognize that either those theoretical frameworks are lacking, or they are ill-suited, leaving the researcher vulnerable to an ethnocentric bias or forced to use an ill-adapted theory. When a theory does exist, it is often insufficiently specified and rarely tailored to the problem at hand. There can be elements of theories, dispersed or available in a primitive formulation, but they have to be rethought and redesigned. In such situations, which are fairly common, researchers are engaged in theory development and their contribution to case study and to process tracing remains significant.
(Vennesson, 2008: 236)

You also have to watch out for the “autonomy of each case” (p 237), since they might have common causes, unseen linkages.  You have to watch out that your data sources are accessible and reliable –

Process tracing can only work if a sufficiently high level of accuracy, and reliability, can be reached on specific processes and events. This is not a given, particularly for topics that involve confidentiality and secrecy, like a foreign policy decision or a counterterrorism policy. One can only highlight the importance of the diversity of empirical sources, and the need to allow sufficient time and resources in the research process for the collection and treatment of empirical data. It is also at this point that the knowledge and practice of various investigation techniques – content analysis, participant observation, interviews, statistical methods, and so on – become significant (see Bray, ch. 15; Checkel 2006: 366–7).
(Vennesson, 2008: 237)

And finally you have to watch out, as with any (social) science that your cognitive biases aren’t helping to fool you (and you are the easiest person to fool, as Feynman said).

Vennesson highlights three particular biases regarding process tracing and case study research. They are (drum roll please)

  • Confirmation bias
  • Results being too consistent with too many theories
  • Ignoring negative evidence

As he has said, “the key question here is: ;What else can it be?’ (p. 238)

How it fits my thesis:  Erm, I’m using process tracing! I am gonna make sure I don’t lose this article in that stack of papers again.


 Peter Hall is a bit of a big beast in the field, and you can see why in his extremely erudite but clearly written article that is part of a methodology symposium

The key characteristic of a theory is that it does not simply identify an empirical regularity, but adduces reasons as to why this empirical regularity should exist, and setting out those reasons usually entails outlining causal mechanisms associated with the phenomenon at hand (Waltz, 1979)…..
(Hall, 2013: 21)

But (and there’s always a but)

after we have gathered observations against which to test a theory, the results are almost always ambiguous. Our observations usually tend to support the theory in some ways, but incline us against it in other ways.
(Hall, 2013: 21)

leaving us to have to reject the theory or the observations (which might in fact be dodgy).

Hall then covers different ways that this problem is tackled (I do like Donald Campbell’s ‘portable truths’! – see p. 22), and unpacks the word ‘interpretation’, which can mean

an intrinsic coherence to behaviour or events that is not immediately visible to the observer.
(Hall, 2013: 23)

Or then again,

Here, interpretation is associated with Weber’s (1949) method of Verstehen and, in particular, with minimalist versions of it which specify that good explanations of actions have to be compatible with the meanings the actors themselves associated with those actions.
(Hall, 2013: 24)

Much more hermeneutic, no “false consciousness!!” hand-waving allowed…He warns that

political scientists should not rely nearly as much as they do on highly stylised models that deliberately avoid realistic depictions of how the historical actors thought or acted.
(Hall, 2013: 24)

Hall then usefully applies this to looking at institutional change, and the pros and cons for political scientists in using what he calls “causal process tracing.”

How it fits my thesis: See comments on Vennesson above – this one will be crucial!


Empirical paper

Switching away from the theory of methodology (or is that the methodology of theory?) to the very practical/empirical; how were Australian lawyers thinking about climate change in the lead up to the crucial target-setting meeting in Kyoto in 1997?

I totally stumbled on Mascher (1997) – it hadn’t turned up on a relatively systematic search I’d done a while back (sometimes you just have to surf aimlessly in hope), it seems.

The backstory is that the Hawke government had decided climate change was going to be important (electorally!) and set up an “Ecologically Sustainable Development” policy-making (sic) process, in part to contain the threat of the green lobby.  They ended up making commitments to emissions cuts/stabilisation that they had neither the intention nor probably the ability to meet. By 1997 this was becoming acutely obvious, embarrassing and potentially dangerous. The Clinton Administration had switched in 1996 to calling for targets and timetables for developed country emissions reductions. Australia, thanks to its reliance on coal for electricity generation and coal exports for dosh, would have been a relatively tight corner.

Mascher dutifully talks about the National Greenhouse Response Strategy that emerged from the aforementioned ESD process (once it had been tamed and gutted by pro-industry bureaucrats), without mentioning just what a meaningless paper exercise it had become (and this was clear by 1995 at the latest).

And as she drily notes

Many of the micro-economic and competition policy reforms which have taken place since 1992 in the energy sector, such as the development of an interconnected competitive electricity market in New South Wales, Victoria, ACT, Queensland and South Australia and the privatisation of publicly owned electricity and gas utilities, have been driven by the goal of improving efficiency and competitiveness. These goals are not necessarily consistent with improving greenhouse emission outcomes.37 While, on its face, a fully competitive energy sector allows renewable energies and co-generation services to compete, structural barriers such as the exclusion of externality costs in fossil fuel energy pricing continue to favour the supply of traditional forms of energy
(Mascher, 1997:132)

In her conclusion she makes the obvious point that

Ultimately, moves to reduce greenhouse gas emissions raise the prospect of moving away from the use of carbon intensive fuels and towards renewable energy sources. The inescapable consequence is that the energy sectors dependant on fossil fuels will be affected. Even the “no regret” measures of low economic impact focused on in the first phase of the NGRS have such implications.
(Mascher, 1997:133)

And finishes plaintively –

Governments can also not afford to lose sight of the fact that the development of renewable energy sources may present significant long term financial and environmental benefits for Australia, both domestically and internationally. To that end, they must continue to pursue efficiencies within the energy sector reliant on conventional energy sources while fostering the development of renewable energy sources with at least equal vigour. It is only by taking this course, I believe, that Australia will truly have no regrets.
(Mascher, 1997:133)

Oh well….

How it fits my thesis:  Ah, the missed opportunities….  Also, that journal looks like a crucial resource!!!


Theory paper

The final paper, by Steven Barley, is an absolute humdinger. As crucial as yesterday’s Levy and Spicer (2013), I reckon.  If you are interested to know how the United States has been governed these last 50 years, you need to read this skilful synthesis of work from a variety of fields (history, political science, etc –

Here’s the abstract

Although organizational theorists have given much attention to how environments shape organizations, they have given much less attention to how organizations mold their environments. This paper demonstrates what organizational scholars could contribute if they were to study how organizations shape environments. Specifically, the paper synthesizes work by historians, political scientists and students of corporate political action to document how corporations systematically built an institutional field during the 1970s and 1980s to exert greater influence on the US Federal government. The resulting network, composed of nine distinct populations of organizations and the relationships that bind them into a system, channels and amplifies corporate political influence, while simultaneously shielding corporations from appearing to directly influence Congress and the administration.
(Barley, 2010: 777)

In plain English – the bosses got spooked that the State was being successfully pressured by groups that gave a damn about a habitable planet, other species and social justice.  And they got their act together and have succeeded in capturing the policy-making process and then insulating it from counter-attack. And giving themselves plausible deniability.

Barley starts with a gentle chiding of sociologists for not having written about corporate political activity (he doesn’t go full cynic and suggest that generally academics are very good at knowing what it’s better not to see and say).

Barley explains his methodology –

To develop my argument, I will draw on research by a potpourri of political scientists, historians, journalists, sociologists, and students of corporate political action. My modus operandi will be to sift through and reassemble their work with an organizational theorist’s eye, to make the case that we already possess concepts that could be aimed fruitfully at the problem. Specifically, I shall focus on the utility of concepts employed by organizational institutionalists because they seem particularly well tuned for the task (Greenwood 2008). My thesis is this: during the 1970s and 1980s American corporations built, partially intentionally and partially unintentionally, an institutional field for shaping public policy. By institutional field, I mean a set of organizational populations and the relations that embed members of these populations into a social system or network with a purpose.
(Barley, 2010: 780)

And delivers in spades.  He looks at Peak Organisations (the US Chamber of Commerce, the National Federation of Independent Businesses, the Business Roundtable.)  They were extremely well networked and savvy

The Chamber’s renewal was strongly shaped by a memo written in 1971 byLewis F. Powell to the Chamber’s director two months before Nixon nominated Powell to the US Supreme Court. The memo, which remained secret until after Powell’s confirmation, advised the Chamber to battle for business’s image and interests by fighting the opposition in the courts, by funding reputable social scientists who would lend credibility to free market philosophies, by using the media to distribute pro-business perspectives, and by evaluating textbooks used in social science courses.
(Barley, 2010: 784)  [See this Greenpeace article for text and analysis of the Powell memo, MH]

And extremely good at what they did.

In 1977 [the Chamber] set up the National Chamber Litigation Center, a business-oriented, public interest law firm that ‘promote[d] the private enterprise viewpoint before courts and regulatory agencies’ (Levitan and Cooper 1984: 20). By 1980 it had set up 2,700 Congressional Action Committees, each composed of about 30 executives who knew their representatives or senators personally. In 1982 the Chamber launched the American Business Network, or Biznet, which served as a nationwide communication system to provide news and commentary and to promote lobbying and corporate political action. For instance, one of Biznet’s first programs was a four-hour closed circuit program beamed to 200 corporations that discussed Congressional races and handicapped candidates (Sabato 1984).
(Barley, 2010: 784)

He then describes Political Action Committees and then Government Affairs Offices. On Public Relations Firms (that do lots of astroturfing) he has a couple of bits worth quoting in depth-

in the fight against establishing the Consumer Protection Agency (1977–1978), the Business Roundtable hired the North American Precis Syndicate to:

‘produce negative articles, ads, cartoons and prepackaged editorials about the CPA that were distributed free to hundreds of small daily and weekly newspapers, which often published them verbatim without acknowledgment of the source. These published “grassroots” opinions were then collected and sent to legislators as evidence of negative public opinion.’ (Akard 1992: 56)
(Barley, 2010: 784)

Btw, in his book “Inside the CIA” Philip Agee describes the same tactic being used by the CIA in Latin America in the 1950s.  Get a “communist subversion” story written in Washington planted in a local newspaper in, say Bolivia, then use that clipping as evidence back in Washington of communist subversion.  They called it ‘surfacing’….  The game is the game.

Barley has a long quote (clearly doesn’t have the same supervisor as me!) from Ken Silverstein about how PR firms run grass roots campaigns:

‘At a 1994 conference attended by dozens of corporate “gassroots specialists” … a public relations executive…claimed her outfit could parachute into a community and within two weeks “have an organization set up and ready to go” … The key to success is looking local. “It’s important not to look like a Washington lobbyist. When I go to a zoning board meeting I wear absolutely no make-up, I comb my hair straight back in a ponytail, and I wear my kids’ old clothes”…Speaking to the same conference was John Davies of Davies Communications … [who] explained how his telemarketers produce “personal” letters from real folks: “We want to assist them with letter writing. We get them on the phone, and while we’re on the phone we say, ‘Will you write a letter?’ ‘Sure.’ ‘Do you have the time to write it!’ ‘Not really.’ ‘Could we write the letter for you? I could put you on the phone right now with someone who could help you write a letter. Just hold, we have a writer standing by!’ “We hand-write it out on ‘little kitty cat stationery’ if it’s an old lady. If it’s a business, we take it over to be photocopied on someone’s letterhead. [We] use different stamps, different envelopes.” Getting a pile of personalized letters that have a different look to them is what you want.’ (Silverstein 1998: 90–91)
(Barley, 2010: 788-9)

Barley then turns to Law Firms and Lobbying Firms, Ad Hoc Organisations, Foundations and Think Tank and finally Administrative Appointments and Advisory Committees.

So what does the resulting field look like?  This figure will hopefully help you figure it out –

2010barleyfigure2institutioanlfield focorporate political influence

Barley closes out by pointing out that the United States might be an outlier, but that doesn’t mean the questions he’s raised are pointless.  There is a VERY rich research agenda right there, and I wonder if I could ever get a post-doc.  Have to get the doc first, of course…

How it fits my thesis:  You can’t think of climate change as an issue de novo. By the time it finally punched through in 1988, the corporates were ready for it, thanks to their political mobilisation during the 70s and 80s.  They may have been caught flat-footed for a year or so, but they were able to draw on accumulated folk knowledge, and –crucially – a thick network of organisations with deep interconnections with policy-makers and the media.   The Global Climate Coalition was nowt new, just the same old (successful) repertoire.

Once you see the world like that, it’s easier to explain just why radical mitigation action on the scale called for by scientists was kept off the agenda so successfully for so long (and still is today).

One thought on “Methodology (process tracing), empirics (Kyoto) and theory (corporate power)”

  1. re: ‘and set up an “Ecologically Sustainable Development” policy-making (sic) process, in part to contain the threat of the green lobby. ‘

    This cooptation into corporatist policy-making process has been the key to sucking-the-life-out-of/emasculating the ENGO’s here in Alberta, Canada.

    Promises. Promises. Of a pot-of-gold at the end of the rainbow.
    All the while BAU continues.
    Talk-and-log was the accurate take.
    Yet we are now well into the 2nd generation of enviro’s here investing in ‘going-to-the-table’… Ground Hog Day!

    And the citizens conclude from watching the ritual of public consultation with ‘key stakeholders’ that nothing can be done.

    Corporatism vs democracy: Game, Set, Match.

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