Aims to provide a space to develop expertise for those with an interest in realist approaches towards interventions, investigations, critiques and methodological developments. 

The group offers:

  • a termly reading group
  • periodic seminars and guest speakers.

What is realism?

Realist and critical realist approaches require researchers to go beyond developing credible theories to exhausting all possible causal explanations for emergence (Bunt 2016). Critical realists regard themselves as philosophical under-labourers insofar as they use multi-layered frameworks and interdisciplinary approaches to critical inquiry (Bhaskar 2016). Realism is an emancipatory project and an approach to research that recognises the complex and somewhat unpredictable nature of the social world. For instance, people respond to health interventions in diverse ways, choosing to utilise or reject the resources available to them. The realist endeavour in health sciences research is to examine ‘what works for whom, under what circumstances, and how’, to improve practice and the lives of social care recipients (Pawson 1997).

Growing approach in health services research

Realist approaches have gained traction in health services research. Their emphasis on causal mechanisms help us contextualise trial results by answering the transcendental question of ‘what must be true in order for this to be the case?’ (Oliver 2012). While our group is particularly interested in realist evaluations and health trials, we see value in interdisciplinarity and welcome those with an interest in realism from other faculties, disciplines and external partners.

Past events

Realist Reading Groups
11 March 2020
At the group in December we discussed the role of middle range theory in realist evaluation and synthesis. We had varied understandings and several questions. We decided to focus this next group on ‘Middle Range Theory’.
These two papers were suggested as reading for next time:
If you have any future ideas for papers, seminars or speakers, then please drop Sarah Rybczynska-Bunt an email.
9 December 2019
The papers we read were:
16 October 2019
The papers we read were:
Adams, A., Sedalia, S., McNab, S., & Sarker, M. (2016). Lessons learned in using realist evaluation to assess Maternal and Newborn health programming in rural Bangladesh. Health Policy and Planning, 31(2), 267–275.
Some members of the group were preparing abstracts for the Realist Conference in Dublin, March 2020. The group session was used to share and receive feedback on abstracts.
4 September 2019
Two realist papers were discussed:
19 June 2019
The two papers below were discussed at this Realist Reading Group session:

Dave Elder-Vass, Critical Realist Seminar – Plymouth, April 2019

Dave's work on ‘retrodiction’ not only gives us a conceptual tool for identifying mechanisms (predicted and not predicted), but also helps us to think about the relationship between mechanisms and the entities they operate within. Dave has developed some key ideas around how we can understand causality, structure, agency, entities and emergence and will help challenge how we understand individual responses to interventions in complex systems. As well as health, social and psychological sciences Dave's work will appeal to colleagues in other faculties and/or departments interested in critical realism or perhaps other areas he writes about such as the digital economy.

In this seminar Dave looked at why causation is a controversial word in the social sciences. Positivists are often accused of a simplistic approach to causation that does not work in the social world, and in response interpretivists have often substituted hermeneutic accounts for explanatory accounts of social action. This seminar explained the critical realist alternative, which reinstates causality but in a more sophisticated form, in which people, social structures and material things are all understood as having causal powers that interact to produce social actions and social events. 

It examined both how social structures can influence human action and also how human action itself can be explained using a synthesis of Bourdieu's account of habitus and Archer's theory of reflexivity. Habitus and reflexivity, it argued, refer to different moments of the same process and once we understand how they fit together we can see both the pathways for social influence and the opportunities for individual decision making more clearly.

For more information please visit: http://www.eldervass.com/


  • D-PACT – Developing and evaluating a system for dementia support in general practice for people with dementia and their carers.
  • Engager – Developing and evaluating a collaborative care intervention for offenders with common mental health problems, near to and after release.
  • Engagement in Person Centred and Coordinated Care (P3C) – Theory development from our evaluations of person centred models of care in the Southwest of England.


  • Elder-Vass, D. (2011) The Causal Power of Social Structures: Emergence, Structure and Agency. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Emmel, N., Greenhalgh, J., Manzano, A., Mongahan, M. and Dalkin, S. (2018) Doing Realist Research. London: Sage.   
  • Houston S (2001) Beyond Social Constructionism: Critical Realism and Social Work. The British Journal of Social Work 31(6): 845–861.
  • Oliver C (2012) Critical realist grounded theory: A new approach for social work research. British Journal of Social Work 42(2): 371–387.
  • Sayer A (2000) Realism and Social Science. London: Sage.


Join our mailing list

Please contact:

Laura Gill MSc
Research Group Co-ordinator
University of Plymouth, Faculty of Health 
Room N14, ITTC Building
Plymouth Science Park
Derriford, Plymouth, Devon

Tel: +44 (0) 1752 764879

Email: laura.gill@plymouth.ac.uk

Aerial view of Derriford Hospital, John Bull Building (PUPSMD) and Plymouth Science Park