Evidence-Based Policy: A Realist Perspective

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SAGE, Apr 7, 2006 - Social Science - 208 pages
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In this important new book, Ray Pawson examines the recent spread of evidence-based policy making across the Western world. Few major public initiatives are mounted these days in the absence of a sustained attempt to evaluate them. Programmes are tried, tried and tried again and researched, researched and researched again. And yet it is often difficult to know which interventions, and which inquiries, will withstand the test of time. The evident solution, going by the name of evidence-based policy, is to take the longer view. Rather than relying on one-off studies, it is wiser to look to the ′weight of evidence′. Accordingly, it is now widely agreed the most useful data to support policy decisions will be culled from systematic reviews of all the existing research in particular policy domains.

This is the consensual starting point for Ray Pawson′s latest foray into the world of evaluative research. But this is social science after all and harmony prevails only in the first chapter. Thereafter, Pawson presents a devastating critique of the dominant approach to systematic review - namely the ′meta-analytic′ approach as sponsored by the Cochrane and Campbell collaborations. In its place is commended an approach that he terms ′realist synthesis′. On this vision, the real purpose of systematic review is better to understand programme theory, so that policies can be properly targeted and developed to counter an ever-changing landscape of social problems.

The book will be essential reading for all those who loved (or loathed) the arguments developed in Realistic Evaluation (Sage, 1997). It offers a complete blueprint for research synthesis, supported by detailed illustrations and worked examples from across the policy waterfront. It will be of especial interest to policy-makers, practitioners, researchers and students working in health, education, employment, social care, criminal justice, regeneration and welfare.


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Page 1 - The United States and other modern nations should be ready for an experimental approach to social reform, an approach in which we try out new programs designed to cure specific social problems, in which we learn whether or not these programs are effective, and in which we retain, imitate, modify, or discard them on the basis of apparent effectiveness on the multiple imperfect criteria available. Our readiness for this stage is indicated by the inclusion of specific provisions for program evaluation...
Page 1 - Great Society" legislation, and by the current congressional proposals for establishing "social indicators" and socially relevant "data banks." So long have we had good intentions in this regard that many may feel we are already at this stage, that we already are continuing or discontinuing programs on the basis of assessed effectiveness.
Page 1 - More new ideas, more willingness to question inherited ways of doing things, better use of evidence and research in policy making and better focus on policies that will deliver long term goals.
Page 20 - Consequently, for realists, causation is not understood on the model of regular successions of events, and hence explanation need not depend on finding them, or searching for putative social laws. The conventional impulse to prove causation by gathering data on regularities, repeated occurrences, is therefore misguided; at best these might suggest where to look for candidates for causal mechanisms. What causes something to happen has nothing to do with the number of times we have observed it happening.7...

About the author (2006)

Given my job title, it will come as no surprise that my main interest lies in research methodology. This does not quite bracket me with the technical nerds, however, for I have written widely on the philosophy and practice of research, covering methods qualitative and quantitative, pure and applied, contemporaneous and historical. There is a common 'realist' thread underlying every word, albeit a modest, middle-range, empirically-rich kind of realism.

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