Blurring the Boundaries between Synthesis and Evaluation. A Customised Realist Evaluative Synthesis into Adolescent Risk Behaviour Prevention

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle



Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)457-470
JournalResearch Synthesis Methods
Issue number3
Early online date17 Apr 2020
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2020
Publication type

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


Realist methodologies have been increasingly advocated for the investigation of complex social issues. Public health programmes, such as those designed to prevent adolescent risk behaviour, are typically considered complex. In conducting a realist review of the empirical literature relating to such programmes, we encountered several challenges, including 1) an overabundance of empirical evidence, 2) a problematic level of heterogeneity within and between methodological approaches, 3) discrepancies between theoretical underpinnings and programme operationalisation, 4) homogeneity of programme outcomes, with very little variation in programme effectiveness, and 5) a paucity of description relating to content and process.

To overcome these challenges, we developed a customised approach to realist evidence synthesis, drawing on the VICTORE complexity checklist and incorporating stakeholder engagement as primary data to achieve greater depth of understanding relating to contextual and mechanistic factors, and the complex interactions between them. Here we discuss the benefits of this adapted methodology alongside an overview of the research through which the methodology was developed.

A key finding from this research was that combining the complexity checklist with primary data from stakeholder engagement enabled us to systematically interrogate the data across data sources, uncovering and evidencing mechanisms which may otherwise have remained hidden, giving greater ontological depth to our research findings.

This paper builds on key methodological developments in realist research, demonstrating how realist methodologies can be customised to overcome challenges in developing and refining programme theory from the literature, and contributes to the broader literature of innovative approaches to realist research.

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