Types of Process Research Explanations

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

Process research is about finding answers with regard to the course and / or the outcome of a process. Typical questions are: ‘what has happened?’, ‘what is going on?’, ‘where are we going?’, or ‘what should we do?’ A process research answer would be couched in terms of a course of events that provides the explanation as to how this course and/or outcome have been realized. There are four ways in which this explanation can be provided and they relate to the particular question that is being asked (Van de Ven & Sminia, 2012).

1) The unique sequence explanation: this type of explanation focuses on the particular sequence of events that leads to the outcome under investigation. It involves explicating that one event leads to another and constructing the cause and effect chain of events, which has lead to the particular outcome that needs to be explained. This type of explanation can be associated with the ‘what has happened?’ question as the unique sequence of events leading up to a particular outcome provides the answer.

2) The key event explanation: this type of explanation is about understanding a particular moment in time. This can be the immediate here and now as well as something specific that occurred in the past. It provides an answer to the ‘what is going on’ question by explicating the concurrence of circumstances that taken together contribute to making this moment in time – the key event – what it is. The key event explanation and the unique sequence explanation do not exclude each other. For instance, a key event can play a decisive role in creating a particular but unique sequence that played out over time.

3) The general pattern explanation: this type of explanation assumes that process courses come as fixed event patterns. It is such a general pattern that forms the basis of the expectation or prediction that answers the ‘where are we going?’ question by extrapolating this general pattern into the associated outcome, assuming of course that the general pattern converges on a specific outcome. However, a general pattern does not necessarily need to have such strict deterministic qualities and can be more open ended, which obviously will lead to difficulties in assessing where a process is heading. A general pattern explanation is also capable of answering a ‘what has happened?’ or a ‘what is going on?’ question by referring to this general pattern.

4) The social mechanism explanation: this type of explanation can be provided on top of the general pattern explanation. It focuses on the generative mechanism that makes that the pattern occurs in the first place. Van de Ven & Poole (1995) have suggested that there are four different mechanisms that can generate more specific process patterns. These are teleology, the life cycle, dialectics and evolution. A social mechanism provides an underlying account of how cause and effect relationships come to exist between events to provide a more universal explanation with regard to the incidence of the process under investigation. If such a social mechanism can be made to operate at will and if the pattern that it generates is associated with a particular outcome, it offers the possibility of intervention in the course of a process. To answer the ‘what should we do?’ question, desirable outcomes need to be distinguished from undesirable outcomes while the process has to allow for such a possibility of intervention. It is only under these conditions that answers can be provided about what to do.


Van de Ven, A. H., & Poole, M. S. (1995). Explaining development and change in organizations. Academy of Management Review, 20(3), 510-540.

Van de Ven, A. H., & Sminia, H. (2012). Aligning process questions, perspectives, and explanations. In M. Schultz, S. Maguire, A. Langley, & H. Tsoukas (Eds.), Constructing Identity In and Around Organizations (pp. 306-319). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

© 2012 Harry Sminia