I come back to this account regularly as a grounding point for studies of policy. The central point is that a “realistic” view sees causal chains as dense, intertwined, looping back on themselves, and contextually dependent. A policy mechanism intended to produce an outcome may work in some contexts and not in others. It may even have different effects at different times, because individual and collective expectations may change. This is a good primer to review with Meadows (2008) on systems thinking. It is interesting to see, sometimes, looks of puzzlement, frustration or confusion in academics when I ask about “evidence” in the context of a policy-relevant study. Evidence is a contested term, and the Realist perspective described by Pawson seems to be either implicitly held but not articulated (for example by health, police or social-policy researchers closer to the real world of budgets and programs) or an alien landscape (for critical theorists or academics).
David Last, 1 October 2012