SISCC Fellow attends 2017 International Realist Conference

SISCC research fellow Dr. Emma Coles recently attended the Realist 2017 conference in Brisbane, Australia. In this post, she'll tell you about her experience.

On October 24th-26th, I attended the Realist 2017 conference in Brisbane, Australia, hosted by Charles Darwin University and the Northern Institute.

This was my first realist conference, and I found the relatively small but thriving realist community open and welcoming.  The conference brought together academics and practitioners from around the world to explore the advancement of realist methodology twenty years on from the publication of Pawson & Tilley’s seminal text ‘Realist Evaluation’ – had it lived up to its premise to transform research and inform policy and practice via its central question, ‘What works, for whom, and in what circumstances’?* Thus followed an intensive three-day deep immersion into methodological developments, uses/application of the Context-Mechanism-Outcome (CMO) approach across a range of disciplines and the ways ahead for realist evaluation, synthesis, and realist-informed research.

Probably the most interesting part for me was the keynote speakers.  Nick Tilley presented an overview of the origins of realist evaluation followed by an illustration of its practical application and theory creation in the field of criminal justice, while turning the realist question on its head by asking: ‘what backfires, for whom and in what circumstances?’  In his remote talk, Ray Pawson offered the conference directions for the future development of realist research, in the form of seven thought-provoking challenges.  Penny Hawkins on adaptive evaluation in the real world and the challenges of describing real-world complexity in terms of CMO configurations, noted that we have to be ‘practical, not perfect’ – being pragmatic whilst at the same time, context/system-sensitive - given the complexity of systems, there is a need to focus on the most important parts of a system.

Other presentations were equally illuminating, such as Patricia Rogers’ exploration of the multitude of options to represent realist theory and CMO configurations, and how to strike a balance between the competing objectives of clarity, complication and complexity when communicating findings.  Overall, a multitude of useful topics was covered during the conference: diverse highlights included how to sell the realist approach to policy-makers, testing realist programme theory, and quality in realist projects – along with many ideas for the ways ahead.  Although the conference was multi-disciplinary and showcased varied examples of research with a realist lens (in a multitude of contexts!), the popularity of realist methodology in the health sciences was apparent given the predominance of health-related projects.

The conference also gave me the opportunity to present the findings and lessons learned from a prior realist review of early years health and wellbeing interventions, framed in terms of the value added by the realist approach and my reflections on my ‘realist journey’.  As the three days progressed, I realised that I was not the only one on this journey – we all are, albeit at different stages in our realist learning.

Lots of great discussions over the three days gave me food for thought and certainly advanced progress on my personal realist journey.  I came away with fresh thinking and renewed confidence to take forward the ongoing (and somewhat challenging) realist review of context in quality improvement.

*the answer to this question can only be a resounding ‘yes’! Realism is thriving - where will the next 20 years take us?


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