Event Structure Analysis

By Harry Sminia, Strathclyde Business School, Glasgow, Scotland, UK

David Heise developed event structure analysis. It was designed to map out a chain of events from an initial trigger to an eventual outcome. The initial purpose was to produce a model of how people think an outcome is produced. The method basically was aimed at recovering people’s knowledge (cognition) about the generation of outcomes. It was therefore not so much about investigating a process but more about the cognitive maps that reside inside people’s heads that refer to how an outcome is realized. Subsequently the method was considered to be suitable for analyzing actual processes with the purpose of uncovering the chain of events that lead to a particular outcome. In that sense, event structure analysis is primarily an analytical tool that fits the unique sequence type of explanation. The focus is on a particular outcome and the way in which preceding events have contributed to it. In the sense of finding the particular explanation of how an outcome was produced, the method is largely inductive. However, as will be explained below, it does rely on particular assumptions with regard to human action to be able to link events into cause and effect relationships.

How event structure analysis should be done is explained in Heise (1989, 1991) and Corsaro and Heise (1990). David Heise also designed a software programme (ETHNO) to facilitate the analysis. It can be downloaded here. The programme prompts the researcher to put events in chronological order and to carefully consider whether and how one event has lead to another. Griffin (1993) is an example of the usage of event structure analysis to explain an episode in American history: the lynching of African-American David Harris in Bolivar County, Mississippi, on 23 April 1930. He makes additional comments on this method and its usage in Griffin and Korstad (1998). Stevenson and Greenberg (1998) is an example of event structure analysis in an organizational context. They analyzed the sequence of events that lead to a change in policy of a public body: the City of Boston Parks and Recreation Commission. Brown (2000) usage of event structure analysis to analyze the outcome of trade union campaigns is an example of historical research in an organizational setting.

The basic process theory on which event structure analysis relies is the theory of rational action (Heise, 1989). By assuming that actors, when they create an event, make a rational choice on the basis of what they know about the situation at that moment in time, causal inferences can be drawn with regard to how actions create the particular circumstances that are then contemplated to decide on the next action. This also implies, as Griffin (1993) commented, that event sequence analysis requires intimate knowledge of the local situation in which the process takes place because the researcher needs to be able to envisage the actors’ reasoning when they decide on the next action for the researcher to be able to make a judgement on whether and how one event has lead to another.


Brown, C. (2000). The role of employers in split labour markets: An event structure analysis of racial conflict in AFL organizing, 1917-1919. Social Forces, 79(2), 653-681.

Corsaro, W. A., & Heise, D. R. (1990). Event structure models from ethnographic data. In C. Clogg (Ed.), Sociological Methodology (pp. 1-57). Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell.

Griffin, L. J. (1993). Narrative, event-structure analysis, and causal interpretation in historical sociology. American Journal of Sociology, 98(5), 1094-1133.

Griffin, L. J., & Korstad, R. R. (1998). Historical inference and event-structure analysis. International Review of Social History, 43, 145-165.

Heise, D. R. (1989). Modelling event structures. Journal of Mathematical Sociology, 14, 139-169.

Heise, D. R. (1991). Event structure analysis: a qualitative model of quantitative research. In N. Fielding & R. Lee (Eds.), Using Computers in Qualitative Research. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Stevenson, W. B., & Greenberg, D. N. (1998). The formal analysis of narratives of organizational change. Journal of Management, 24(6), 741-762.

© 2011 Harry Sminia