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Four researchers from the University of Exeter have contributed to a newly published definitive guide to using realist research methods

Landmark textbook showcases Exeter’s expertise in realist research methods

A newly published definitive guide to using realist research methods counts four researchers from the University of Exeter Medical School among the international list of chapter authors.

Realist research explicitly recognises the complex ways in which societal and organisational problems are caused, and so bases analysis around understanding how, why, for whom and in what contexts policies or programmes work.  Realist research approaches have been refined and applied widely in health research in particular, and used to enhance the explanatory power of both primary research and systematic reviews (realist synthesis). 

The new book, Doing Realist Research, includes a chapter on using realist approaches for assessing cost and cost-effectiveness that was written by Rob AndersonRebecca HardwickRichard Byng (Plymouth University & PenCLAHRC) and Mark Pearson, and the chapter on scoping and searching to support realist research was co-authored by information specialist Simon Briscoe. 

It is just over twenty years since Ray Pawson and Nick Tilley published their highly influential book Realistic Evaluation, and the book Doing Realist Research brings together the current leading theorists, researchers and policy makers with expertise in using realist methods.  Not just an overview of the field, the book extends current debates and applies realist methods to new and practical challenges in social research. 

Rob Anderson, Director of the Evidence Synthesis & Modelling for Health Improvement (ESMI) research group which has conducted several NIHR-funded realist evidence syntheses, said: “Since around 2011, researchers in ESMI have applied and extended realist approaches of evidence synthesis to answer policy-relevant questions about health services and public health programmes.  Policy-makers and practitioners understand that in complex areas most interventions are configured and implemented differently, and therefore work differently in different contexts. Ointervention providers and recipients respond to the new resources offered by an intervention in different ways.  Compared with conventional review or research methods, realist approaches can therefore reveal in which contexts particular causal mechanisms are fostered, and therefore which intended outcomes can be more confidently expected”. 

To find out more about realist methods, follow the Realist Hive – an Exeter university hosted blog about using realist methods – or browse the resources of the NIHR HS&DR-funded RAMESES projects which describes best practice approaches to realist evaluation and review. 

In addition to its increasing value in externally funded projects, a number of talented Medical School  postgraduate researchers within the Institute of Health Research are also applying and extending realist methods as part of their PhDs, on: 


  • developing an intervention to support General Practitioners when communicating with patients with depression and anxiety (Daisy Parker) 

  • examining museum programmes for people with dementia (Debbie Kinsey) 

  • models of care for patients with multiple health conditions in the UK (Charlotte Bramwell) 

  • knowledge mobilisation in third sector organisations (Rebecca Hardwick) 

  • wellbeing and knitting group participation in different contexts (Mirja Rutger) 



Book details: 


Doing Realist Research. Edited by Nick Emmel, Joanne Greenhalgh, Ana Manzano, Mark Monaghan and Sonia Dalkin 

Published by Sage publications, 14th July 2018pp.272. ISBN: 9781473977891 

RRP:  £29.99 


Featuring practical, worked examples of how to turn theory into evidence, it empowers readers not just to understand realist methods, but to use them. 


It will help readers: 

-          Negotiate the complexity of relational systems 

-          Understand the importance and relevance of cumulative theory 

-          Choose cases, qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods and strategies for analysis 

-          Address concerns over data sources and quality 

-          Be flexible and creative in realist approaches    

-          Produce useful evidence for policy. 


Sophisticated and globally minded, this book is the perfect addition to the ongoing development and application of realist methods across evaluation, synthesis, and social research.   


Table of contents 

Introduction Nick Emmel, Joanne Greenhalgh, Ana Manzano, Mark Monaghan, and Sonia Dalkin  

1. Nick Tilley 
Forty Years with Realist Ray and their Unintended Consequences: An Affectionate and Unfinished Middle Range Story of Realist Methods 

2. Malcolm Williams 
Making up mechanisms   
3. Gill Westhorp 
Revisiting mechanisms in realist research and evaluation  
4. Brad Astbury
Will it work elsewhere? Social programming in open systems
5. Bruno Marchal, Guy Kegels and Sara Van Belle 
Realist evaluation in health policy and systems research: theory incarnate  

6. David Byrne 
Large scale interventions in large scale nested systems – a Complex Realist Take 

7. Rob Anderson, Rebecca Hardwick, Mark Pearson, and Richard Byng 
Using realist approaches to explain the costs and cost-effectiveness of programmes   

8. Geoff Wong 
The challenges and solutions to data gathering in realist reviews: looking for needles in haystacks  

9. Andrew Booth, Judy Wright and Simon Briscoe  
Scoping and Searching to Support Realist Approaches  

10. Mark Monaghan and Annette Boaz  
The place of realist explanation and review and their impact on policy: More useful, more used?  

11. Mike Kelly  
Realist methods and the politics of evidence: developing evidence-based public health guidelines.  

12. Ray Pawson 
Realist Memorabilia 


Date: 10 August 2018

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