We don’t talk about love / We only want to get drunk. Musings on the 2nd International CARES Conference.

I’m on the train coming back from CARES’s 2nd Annual Conference, and as this Great Western Railway train speeds through the countryside on its 2.5 hr journey back to the Shire, I have been reflecting on the conference, and wanted to share a few observations – for those who attended, and those who didn’t. The tracks are courtesy of my 19 year old self.

(CARES, in case you don’t know, stands for the Centre for the Advancement of Realist Evaluation and Synthesis. Their website is here. The best thing about their conferences, and actually any conference, is when the ‘greats’ of the method turn up and join in.)

1. London is a very big place Mr Shadrack, a very big place. A man could lose himself in London, lose himself. Lose himself in London.

I lived in London between 1994 and 2000, the heyday years of Britpop, and in my time at Goldsmiths’ College and the few years afterwards, I prided myself on getting to know the city well. I took random buses to different places I’d read about or heard of just to see what they were like. Getting lost was something that country folk did, and I prided myself on my sense of direction. Nigh on twenty years later, we now have the mobile telephone and the google map. Which would make you think that exploring a different part of the city would be easier. I don’t know the streets around the Barbican very well at all, but as I had my trusty app, I thought I’d be ok. How wrong was I? I thought I was going north when I was going south. East when west. And so on. And it was only when I stopped using the map that I started to find my way. Conclusions may be drawn from that at your leisure…

2. It always starts with the mechanism
If you’ve been around the Scientific Realism community for a while, you’ll have come across what feels like an interminable debate about CMOCs. CMOCs stands for ‘Context’, ‘Mechanism’, ‘Outcome’ configuration, and it is a socially constructed heuristic to support researchers in the process of developing programme theories. There has been much debate about the utility and necessity of ‘specifying’ CMOCs, as well as ‘how’ to do them. This dates back to the mists of time when I think Ray was trying to offer a useful tool to help researchers get a handle on ‘what is a programme theory’. The problem, in my view, is that specifying CMOCs has replaced theory building as the dominant activity in some realist research, that it is unthinkingly applied and ends up being the focus of the work, rather than a useful device. During another discussion about mechanisms (what’s a mechanism? when is it a context?) Ray muttered to no one in particular ‘It always starts with the mechanism’, and having reflected on this myself, I think its fair to say he’s right. At one point, the conversation about mechanisms even talked about love as a mechanism…. not many conferences would do that, and I’m pleased this one did. Although, as it goes, we didn’t really want to talk about love, we only wanted to get drunk.

3. Is it really realist?
I witnessed the glee in a girls eye as she recanted to me how someone had presented their work to her and she retorted that it didn’t seem really realist. I smiled, inwardly thinking how mean! Whether or not something is really realist was talked about a lot. And to be honest, I find it frustrating, we need to get over this and just get on with doing good research. If you’re looking at mechanisms and their role in generative causation, its realist. End of. I feel continuing to try and exclude others and get one up by saying someone’s work is not really realist is boring. Call it crap research and encourage them to figure out how they could do it differently next time. But do it in a collegiate way. Let’s not turn on each other, as its off putting to new researchers to realism and feeds the in/out group mentality (I also, personally, reflected that at least that person was having trying…. who knows how hard they had slaved over it….? And if we take the idea of all knowledge being mind-independent but only partially knowable, then really, none of us can have a handle on whether or not something is really realist…. does that make me a relativist realist?! Good grief…let’s move on….)

4. Standing on the shoulders of giants
If there is one hope I think I have for the future of my work, it is that I will continue to look back, read and learn so that I may proceed better informed. David Byrne and Ray Pawson added gravitas to the conference proceedings for me because of their encyclopedic knowledge of both social science and research methodologists. I get the feeling that there are few remaining really tricky research methodology questions to square, if only we knew who had already squared them. Made me even more determined to read more, to understand the heritage of social science, to take the time to be familiar with these authors so that I can stand on their shoulders as I try to understand my research problem and my work. Made me think that the time I’ve spent reading Martyn Hammersley and understanding ethnography over the last few months has been worthwhile but is only the tip of the iceberg. Worlds to conquer, worlds to share my friends.

5. We’re doing some really fab work in Exeter and Plymouth.
I felt so very very proud to be counted amongst the Exeter and Plymouth contingent. I was proud of the breadth of the work we’re engaged in, the rigour of our methods and approach, our general collegiate way of being with each other, and how darn friendly we were to other people too! We participated well in the discussion sessions, asking questions and making observations, we presented our work, we stimulated thinking and debate, we challenged and we hosted, and we played like we’d all just met up in the year 2000. I think we have so much to offer the research community, and the best way we can do it is to continue producing good quality research. GO US! (And we’ll be showcasing more excellent work from our Universities at the Hive over the coming year…)

6. Coffee
Surprisingly perhaps, the quality of the coffee at the Barbican was adequate. But me and a few others had a lot of fun finding other places for that morning flat white: such as Here and Here. Best was the menu in fix, where you could have milf in your drink. Nice.

flat white

flat white

7. I am/ am I a believer?

This observation is a bit left field. In the same way that there was a definite desire to be seen as being a believer in realism, there were a handful of sceptics there too this last week. And their healthy scepiticism about the methods and methodology of realist approaches is, I think, needed more. In my work, it has been the criticism of my supervisors that has led to learning, not their fawning enthusiasm for my latest effort…. not that I know what that is like. But without the doubting Thomas’, I think we are in danger of group think.

For my part, I reflected that at one point I was a zealot, impressed with the heritage of scientific realism, and proclaiming its worth to any and all who would listen. I have mellowed somewhat. I would say that I still hold with the basic philosophy of science of realism – that there is a mind-independent reality, generative causation, ontological depth (there’s more than meets the eye), and retroductive reasoning. But, that’s not because of some fanatical need to be a ‘realist’, its because for me that makes sense and is good science. I am part of the realist community because they can help me do my work better by understanding my methods and thinking. And I am healthily sceptical of any methodology, methodologist or method that claims to have the whole and only truth. As in all things, we need our doubters.

8. When willing, splitting the bill at the end of a meal is not difficult.
On the last night, Sarah, Richard, me and a host of others had dinner together at a lovely Mediterranean restaurant. Anyone want sharing plates? The food was great. The wine ok. There were sharing dishes and starters, and mains only, weirdly no puddings. Or at least I didn’t get a chance to find out! And instead of the usual nightmare that is splitting the bill, everyone worked together and just put in an equal share. Regardless of whether or not they have actually eaten that much. The lack of penny pinching and nitpicking was utterly refreshing. As was the pint of Tribute that followed at the pub across the road!

9. The future of realist research …
In the final talk of the week, Gill Westhorpe encouraged us to think much more broadly as to where our research can reach. She took us through the challenges facing humanity that research has a place in meeting, and the way that realist research needs to grow and reflect the changing nature of knowledge. And she finished up by saying that there will be a realist research conference hosted by her home University in Australia next year where the emphasis will be on the impact of the work we have done, and engagement with research users. I doubt I will be able to go though as it will likely coincide with submitting my thesis, which is a shame because there will be a pre-conference meeting looking at realist economic evaluation, something we have led the field on at Exeter. [Realism and Resources – Towards more explanatory evaluation ]

10. …and the $79 weakling…
Ray gave a cracking talk, on how effectiveness of drug RCTs are the test of delicate theory building, … and drew us again to reflect on a) how the wheel of science works – theory building, theory testing and b) how developing a mechanisms library, wherein knowledge about how generative mechanisms across policy fields ‘work’ in what circumstances and why would save everyone a lot of bother in doing realist research. Hear hear, I thought. And so watch this blog for development of our own mechanism library… Presentations from the conference will be loaded to the conference website in due course, including Ray’s talk, and the link will be emailed round and added to this post when it is.

All in all it was a really good week, made some new connections, and reconnected with old ones. Drank far too much, smoked way too much and laughed a lot. And listened to some great music.

Squeaker spent most of the conference in my bag, and was still completed exhausted by the end of it.

Squeaker spent most of the conference in my bag, and was still completed exhausted by the end of it.

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