Guest Blog from Heather Ohly, PhD student, University of Central Lancashire. Support Networks for Novice Realist Researchers.

When I started my PhD in October 2014, I had barely heard of realism and was much more inclined to do a standard systematic review, having recently worked on two at the University of Exeter. So it was with some trepidation that I started to explore realist synthesis…only to discover that its core principles and approach did seem to suit my research project.

Here goes, I thought. My supervisors were enthusiastic and supportive, but none of them had ever used realist methodology. I felt like I was fumbling around in the dark for quite a while. Was this really a good idea? Can my brain think in this way?

Fortunately, I discovered that there are great support networks out there for novices like me. This blog post aims to encourage others to make the most of such networks and develop their own, to minimise and cope with the confusion that inevitably occurs when you try to learn how to do something that is at once creative, scientific, theory-driven and evidence-based.

I have benefited from three support networks so far in my journey:


A virtual network managed through an email distribution list that anyone can join and contribute to:

Anyone can post a question, either about realist methodology or about your own project, and without fail you will get a thoughtful and considered response (often several) within 24 hours. This often leads to fairly high level discussions between experts from around the world, and it is fascinating to (try to) follow these and benefit from their wisdom and experience. The diverse range of contributors and questions demonstrates the scope of the realist approach and how it is gaining momentum in different disciplines. It was reassuring for me to discover that so many other people are applying it for the first time and experiencing similar uncertainties.

Frequently, some kind person will take the trouble to explain something in detail for the benefit of others. One example that I found really useful was when Peter O’Halloran from Queen’s University, Belfast outlined some of the key concepts in critical realism that have helped to shape the definitions of ‘context’ and ‘mechanism’ used in scientific realism (posted 10th March 2015). As someone without a social science background, this brief introduction to ‘social structure’ and ‘human agency’ enabled me to think about my project through a different lens. Peter also made the point that there may be “a relatively small number of mechanisms at work in relation to agency (because there is a commonality in human nature) but a myriad social structures in a given context”. This resonated with me and made the process of abstraction to middle range theory seem a little less daunting.


The University of Liverpool’s Centre for Advancement of Realist Evaluation and Synthesis organises regular realist workshops and an annual realist summer school. These events provide an opportunity to meet other realist researchers, from novice to expert, all of whom are keen to share their experiences and learn from each other. The events are reasonably priced and usually located in Liverpool or London.

When I attended the two-day realist workshop in March 2015, I was still very unsure about what I was doing with my realist synthesis and just absorbed as much information as possible. By the time I returned for the three-day realist summer school in June 2015, I had a much better understanding and felt confident enough to share my candidate programme theories. I received individual advice and feedback from three experts: Justin Jagosh, Geoff Wong and Sonia Dalkin, and came away feeling motivated and reassured.

At both events, the groups were well-attended and cross-disciplinary. I think we all found it interesting and challenging working through examples of CMO configurations from projects very different to our own. It helped me to see the logic of the realist approach shining through and also to appreciate its strengths and limitations compared to alternative research methods. A previous blog post by David Blane summarised his experience of the 2014 summer school and I would echo his sentiments about the ‘mechanisms’ of a supporting environment in which to learn – more on that later.

‘Realist club’

At the first CARES event I attended, I connected with two other researchers called Sue Mann (UCL) and Katie Shearn (Sheffield Hallam University) and we decided to stay in touch and share our realist journeys through monthly Skype chats. Our projects have some similarities and many differences, but we are all using realist methods for the first time. We take turns to discuss our own programme theories and CMO configurations, and my experience has been that I benefit just as much from discussing their projects as my own.

One thing we are all finding challenging is defining the scope and limitations of what we can do with the time and resources we have – this is very different for Katie and I as PhD students, compared to Sue who is managing a large programme of work across several developing countries – each challenging in its own way. It helps to communicate the logic of what you have done and gain fresh perspectives from people who are detached from your project. Tomorrow we are discussing Katie’s project and she has sent us a fascinating collection of slides entitled ‘conceptualising context and time’.
A small group seems to work well because we all get regular individual attention! However, we have been thinking about ways to share our discussions more widely, such as recording our Skype chats and developing a Wiki resource.

Programme theory?!

Building on David Blane’s ideas about context, mechanisms and outcomes for the CARES summer school, I’d like to propose a candidate programme theory (yes, my arm was twisted to do this):

Realist methodology is flexible, iterative and evolving (context). This means it can be confusing, especially the first time it is used (context). Support networks provide opportunities for shared learning and promotion of best practice with regards the core principles of realist methodology (mechanism: resource). This helps novice researchers to feel confident in their work and stay motivated (mechanism: response), which ultimately means they produce higher quality work and become better realist researchers (hopeful outcomes).

This is probably way too simplistic and I’m sure many people could articulate this better than me, but hey at least I’m confident to try now…so maybe confidence should have been the outcome…??

Heather Ohly, PhD student, University of Central Lancashire
Find me on Linked-In
Follow me on Twitter @heatherohly
Review registered on Prospero, Reference No. CRD42014015050. A realist review to explore how low-income pregnant women use good vouchers from the UK’s Healthy Start programme.

Leave a Reply