Brief introduction to realist evaluation

This web page from Community Matters provides a brief introduction to realist evaluation along with the a chapter by Ray Pawson and Nick Tilley that provides discussion of the basic concepts , strategies and methods of realist evaluation.


"A realist approach assumes that programs are “theories incarnate”.  That is, whenever a program is implemented, it is testing a theory about what ‘might cause change’, even though that theory may not be explicit.  One of the tasks of a realist evaluation is therefore to make the theories within a program explicit, by developing clear hypotheses about how, and for whom, programs might ‘work’.  The implementation of the program, and the evaluation of it, then tests those hypotheses.  This means collecting data, not just about program impacts, or the processes of program implementation, but about the specific aspects of program context that might impact on program outcomes, and about the specific mechanisms that might be creating change."  (Community Matters 2004-2008)


Contents from downloadable chapter

  • The nature of programmes and how they work
  • Basic concepts in the explanation and understanding of programmes
  • Strategies and methods of realist evaluation
  • Realism’s place in the policy cycle: formative, summative and synthetic approaches
  • The nature, presentation and use of findings from realist evaluation
  • Conclusion: strengths, limitations and relationships with other approaches
  • Appendix I – ‘Thinking it through’: an exercise in realist hypothesis making.
  • Appendix II – ‘Varieties of realist evaluation’: pocket illustrations of quantitative, qualitative, formative and synthetic applications.
  • Appendix III – ‘Would it work here?’: a grid to help decide on the feasibility of mounting a programme ‘on your patch’.


Community Matters. (2008). Brief introduction to realist evaluation. Retrieved from