According to Pawson et al. (2005), a realist review, or a realist synthesis, is a method for studying complex interventions in response to the perceived limitations of conventional systematic review methodology. It involves identification of Contexts, Mechanisms and Outcomes for individual programs to explain differences, intended or unintended, between them. Pawson et al. (2005) add that "traditional methods of review focus on measuring and reporting on programme effectiveness, often find that the evidence is mixed or conflicting, and provide little or no clue as to why the intervention worked or did not work when applied in different contexts or circumstances, deployed by different stakeholders, or used for different purposes" (p. 21).
When to Use It: As stated by Wong (2019), realist reviews are used when needing to answer the question “what works, for whom, under what circumstances?”. Rycroft-Malone et al. (2012) state that realist reviews are "particularly appropriate for unpacking the impact of complex interventions because it works on the premise that one needs to understand how interventions work in different contexts, and why" (p. 9). Wong (2019) confirms that realist reviews are steadily on the rise.
The following resource provides further support on conducting a realist review:
METHODS & CONDUCT
Marchal, B., Belle, S. V., & Westhorp, G. (2018, April 18). Realist Evaluation. Retrieved from https://www.betterevaluation.org/en/approach/realist_evaluation
Westhorp, G. (2015, February 27). Realist impact evaluation: an introduction. Retrieved from https://www.betterevaluation.org/resources/realist-impact-evaluation-introduction
Wong, G., MacPhee, M., Merrett, K., Miller, K., Taylor, S., & Pawliuk, C. (2020, March 10). The Realist Review Process Workshop [Presentation]. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.14288/1.0390457
Wong, G., Westhorp, G., Manzano, A., Greenhalgh, J., Jagosh, J., & Greenhalgh, T. (2016). RAMESES II reporting standards for realist evaluations. BMC Medicine, 14(1). doi: 10.1186/s12916-016-0643-1
Check out the supplementary resources page for additional information, including articles, on realist reviews.
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