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date: 11 December 2017

Summary and Keywords

Although more scholars have used archival evidence to analyze foreign policy in recent years, relatively little has been written on the methods involved in using archives as well as the evidentiary value of different types of documents. Analyses of foreign policy decisions often make use of narratives or process-tracing. Process-tracing should uncover the causal mechanisms wherever possible in order to explain foreign policy decisions. Primary sources are extremely useful in uncovering causal mechanisms, whether public opinion, bureaucratic politics, advisory group dynamics, or psychological processes. Through archival evidence, the researcher can capture how policymakers perceived the world at the time, unbiased by hindsight, and their calculations. Because psychological evidence shows that people do not necessarily know what influenced their decision, scholars should not necessarily take at face value the reasons that policymakers give for their actions.

It is useful for political scientists to carry out their own archival research because historians have different implicit theories and may not gather data of relevance to the theories being tested. In addition, through examining the documents, political scientists may be able to discriminate between competing historical interpretations of the same event. It is important to interpret documents within their historic, situational, and communication contexts. The document’s place in the policy process—the sequence of memos and discussions—helps to determine its meaning and impact on the final decision. In order to interpret statements that are apt to be biased by instrumental motives, the investigator should consider who said what to whom under what circumstances and with what purpose.

Keywords: archival research, causal mechanisms, decision making, history, instrumental communication

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