The Practice of Realist Evaluation Theory: A Literature Review of Published Cases from 2010 to 2018

Despite the growth in both popularity and use of realist evaluation, there is little empirical evidence about what it actually looks like in real-world settings. To explore the relationship between theory and practice in realist evaluation and to gain a better understanding of how the Realist evaluation approach has been understood and applied in practice, I conducted a literature review of case studies of Realist evaluations published between 2010 and 2018.

The intent of this research was to provide some insight into the kinds of settings, populations as well as the scale and scope of realist evaluations; the methodologies employed under the rubric of Realist evaluation; the extent to which Realist evaluation principles are applied to in practice; as well as the benefits and challenges reported by evaluators conducting Realist evaluations.

This literature review found that the Realist evaluation approach has been applied to a wide range of settings and has targeted a variety of populations, ranging from the reduction of rural poverty rates through the development of aquatic agricultural systems to the use of sports fields to reduce juvenile misconduct. At the same time, commonalities were observed among cases in terms of research design, orientation and data collection methods employed. There was considerable diversity in the enactment of the eight realist evaluation principles, with a range of between zero and all eight principles represented in cases. Lastly, while evaluators identified some notable benefits of realist evaluation that have enabled program improvements, there also exist some critical challenges, namely the identification of context, mechanisms and outcomes as well as the time, expertise and resource demands required to conduct a realist evaluation, which may signal the need for further development of realist evaluation theory.

The slides attached here, which I presented at the 2018 Canadian Evaluation Society's conference show the key findings of this literature review.

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Importantly, I would like to acknowledge Dr. Brad Astbury for his guidance and expertise throughout the review.