DV460      Half Unit
Bayesian Reasoning for Qualitative Social Science: A modern approach to case study inference

This information is for the 2020/21 session.

Teacher responsible

Dr Tasha Fairfield CON 6.02


This course is available on the MSc in Comparative Politics, MSc in Development Management, MSc in Development Studies, MSc in Global Politics, MSc in Health and International Development, MSc in International Development and Humanitarian Emergencies, MSc in International Relations (Research) and MSc in Political Economy of Late Development. This course is available with permission as an outside option to students on other programmes where regulations permit.

Students will be selected for DV460 based on a written statement of interest (max 150 words).  Priority will be given to students on the programs listed above, if demand exceeds places.


This course has no prerequisites.

Students do not need any previous exposure to either Bayesian analysis or qualitative methods literature. 

Course content

The way we intuitively approach qualitative case research is similar to how we read detective novels.  We consider various different hypotheses to explain what occurred—whether the emergence of democracy in South Africa, or the death of Samuel Ratchett on the Orient Express—drawing on the literature we have read (e.g. theories of regime change, or other Agatha Christie mysteries) and any salient previous experiences we have had.  As we gather evidence and discover new clues, we continually update our beliefs about which hypothesis provides the best explanation—or we may introduce a new alternative that occurs to us along the way. 

Bayesianism provides a natural framework that is both logically rigorous and grounded in common sense, that governs how we should revise our degree of belief in the truth of a hypothesis—e.g., "mobilisation from below drove democratization in South Africa by altering economic elites’ regime preferences," (Wood 2001), or "a lone gangster sneaked onboard the train and killed Ratchett as revenge for being swindled"—given our relevant prior knowledge and new information that we obtain during our investigation.  Bayesianism is enjoying a revival across many fields, and it offers a powerful tool for improving inference and analytic transparency in qualitative research.

This course introduces basic principles of Bayesian reasoning with the goal of helping us leverage our common-sense understandings of inference and hone our intuition when conducting causal analysis with qualitative evidence.  We will examine the foundations of Bayesian probability as well as concrete applications to single case studies, comparative case studies, comparative historical analysis, and multi-methods research.  Students will practice applying Bayesian reasoning to assess the strength and quality of inferences in published studies, drawing on exemplars of qualitative research from various fields of socio-political analysis including development studies, comparative politics, international relations, and policy analysis.  Students will also apply Bayesian principles to various aspects of their own dissertation research in progress—e.g., generating or revising hypotheses, selecting cases, identifying weaknesses in salient background literature, and assessing the inferential weight of available evidence. 

Upon completing the course, students will be equipped with a concrete set of Bayesian-inspired best practices to deploy in their own research, as well as widely-applicable analytic skills that will help them to better evaluate and critique socio-political analysis.


15 hours of lectures and 15 hours of seminars in the LT.

Formative coursework

Students will be expected to produce 1 exercise and 1 project in the LT.

Students will receive written and oral formative assessment on in-class exercises, which will ask them to explain key Bayesian concepts (e.g., the “weight of evidence”) in their own words and apply them to concrete examples (e.g. use Bayes’ rule to derive an inference from several pieces of evidence).

In addition, students will receive oral feedback on the first section of their final project, which will set up rival hypotheses to be compared in light of case evidence.

Indicative reading

Methodological foundations:

Andrew Bennett, “Disciplining Our Conjectures: Systematizing Process Tracing with Bayesian Analysis,” in Andrew Bennett and Jeffrey Checkel, eds, Process Tracing in the Social Sciences: From Metaphor to Analytic Tool, Cambridge University Press, 276–98, 2015;  Tasha Fairfield and Andrew Charman,” Explicit Bayesian Analysis for Process Tracing,” Political Analysis 25(363-380), 2017; ;  Tasha Fairfield and Andrew Charman, “A Dialogue with the Data: The Bayesian Foundations of Iterative Research in Qualitative Social Science,” Perspectives on Politics 17(1:154-167), 2019;  Macartan Humphreys and Alan Jacobs, “Mixing Methods: A Bayesian Approach,” American Political Science Review 109(4):653-673, 2015;  Timothy McKeown, “Case Studies and the Statistical Worldview,” International Organization 53(1):161-190, 1999.

Qualitative research exemplars:

Tasha Fairfield and Candelaria Garay, “Redistribution under the Right in Latin America: Electoral Competition and Organized Actors in Policymaking,” Comparative Political Studies 50 (14) 1871-1906, 2017; Marcus Kurtz, “Reconsidering War and the ‘Resource Curse’ in Third World State Building,” Politics & Society 37 (4) 479–520, 2009; Kenneth Schultz, "Fashoda Revisited" (Chapter 6) in Democracy and Coercive Diplomacy, Cambridge, 2001; Dan Slater, “Revolutions, Crackdowns, and Quiescence: Communal Elites and Democratic Mobilization in Southeast Asia,” American Journal of Sociology 115 (1) 203-254, 2009;  Elisabeth Wood, “An Insurgent Path to Democracy: Popular Mobilization, Economic Interests, and Regime Transition in South Africa and El Salvador," Comparative Political Studies 34 (8) 862-888, 2001.


Project (100%, 3000 words) in the ST.

Students will choose a case-study article that is relevant to their dissertation topic and apply Bayesian reasoning to critique the article’s inferences.  This exercise entails assessing how the author’s argument has been specified, identifying a plausible rival hypothesis (which may or may not be provided by the author), identifying the most salient pieces of evidence presented, and qualitatively evaluating the inferential weight the evidence provides in favour of the author’s hypothesis relative to the rival.

Important information in response to COVID-19

Please note that during 2020/21 academic year some variation to teaching and learning activities may be required to respond to changes in public health advice and/or to account for the situation of students in attendance on campus and those studying online during the early part of the academic year. For assessment, this may involve changes to mode of delivery and/or the format or weighting of assessments. Changes will only be made if required and students will be notified about any changes to teaching or assessment plans at the earliest opportunity.

Key facts

Department: International Development

Total students 2019/20: 20

Average class size 2019/20: 20

Controlled access 2019/20: Yes

Value: Half Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Personal development skills

  • Self-management
  • Team working
  • Problem solving
  • Application of information skills
  • Communication
  • Application of numeracy skills
  • Specialist skills