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Complexity theory and “invisible mechanisms”: Implications for methods and commissioning

This presentation continues the CECAN series on realist research and evaluation and their use in relation to complexity. It focuses on the issue of causation. Causation is of critical interest to policy and program authors, who seek to cause (or steer) change; to evaluators who seek to attribute outcomes to interventions, and to researchers who seek to understand particular aspects of the operations of complex systems.


31st January, 2018
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Complexity theory and a realist philosophy of science are sometimes seen as being incompatible because they seem to offer different understandings of causation. Realism understands causation as working through underlying, invisible, causal mechanisms that operate, or do not, according to context. Complexity theory proposes that behaviours are guided by “simple rules” applied according to local contexts, which generate complex patterns of behaviour and new outcomes at higher levels of systems. Those understandings of causation then have different implications for how interventions might be designed, whether and how outcomes might be predicted, and for generalisation of findings. 

This seminar will argue that there are two linked ways in which realist and complexity theory understandings of causation might be bridged. One starts from complexity theory and argues that ‘simple rules’ can be understood as mechanisms. The other starts from the lens of realist theory but asks a different initial question: why mechanisms are invisible? The answers provide a series of clues as to how mechanisms might be investigated; but also a clearer understanding of where, precisely, the notion of ‘simple rules’ applies within the construct of mechanisms. 

The final component of the seminar draws together the implications of these understandings for evaluation and for commissioning of evaluation across the nexus.

Details of how to join the Webinar will be circulated to attendees nearer the time

About the speaker:

Gill Westhorp is a Professorial Research Fellow at Charles Darwin University where she leads the Realist Research Evaluation and Learning Initiative (RREALI), and an Associate at RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia. She is a co-author of the Rameses standards for realist evaluation and realist review, and is interested in the use of realist approaches for hard-to-evaluate initiatives.

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