Dr Sonia Dalkin, Senior Lecturer in Public Health and Wellbeing, Northumbria University
Unless you’ve been living in a box since 2011, it’s likely that you will have heard of the series Game of Thrones. For those of you still in your boxes – Game of Thrones is fantasy drama television series created by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss. It is an adaptation of A Song of Ice and Fire, George R. R. Martin's series of fantasy novels, the first of which is called A Game of Thrones. The series has been acclaimed for many things including its acting, complex characters, story, scope, and production values. Notably, it has also received praise from both The Guardian and The Times for what is perceived as a sort of medieval realism. Here, I want to talk about a different type of Realism, that of Scientific Realism, or more specifically Realist Approaches to Research.
What is realist research?
Just as Martin’s novels rely on believable characterisation and relatable motivation to create enough suspension of disbelief to enter a world of dragons and sorcery, realist research focuses on social interventions to explain not only whether an intervention works or not, but for whom and under which circumstances. The focus therefore embraces and explains the complexity of social interventions. It aims to understand the responses people have to programme resources, therefore understanding the reasoning and motivations behind their actions. In order to do this, we focus on programme theory and utilise context, mechanism and outcome configurations. It provides rich findings, explaining why interventions work in some contexts, but not in others. For example – why is Daenerys impervious to fire when others are burnt? Because she’s a decedent of House Targaryen. Context is important, people! Alongside context is its trusty friend mechanism – similar to Ghost (an albino dire wolf) and Jon Snow – they go hand in paw. Mechanisms can be referred to as a combination of intervention resources and participant reasoning. More information is available on mechanisms here.
Altogether, the analytical tools of realist evaluation described above are used in the following way: Intervention resources are introduced in a context, in a way that enhances a change in reasoning. This alters the behaviour of participants, which leads to outcomes.
The methodology is not without its difficulties. Often realist researchers describe feeling that they are in a ‘realist swamp’; going down different alleyways, trying to understand and explain how a programme works, for whom and in which circumstances, but not getting too far. Often in this phase, realist researchers are similar to the White Walkers (an ancient race of humanoid ice creatures who really aren’t too friendly), in both looks and temperament. This phase can be frustrating, but like Arya against The Waif (acolyte of the Faceless Men), in most projects there is a sudden moment of clarity, where the dark alley becomes your friend, it all comes together, and you come out fighting.
Here at Northumbria University we have engaged in many projects using realist methods and want to help other realist researchers beat The Waif as quickly as possible, where possible. In order to do this, we’ve engaged a three-pronged approach as sharp as Arya’s sword, ‘Needle’:
1. Realist research Team Hub (NoRTH)
We felt it was time to highlight ourselves as key players in the realist game and to create a hub of realist research. What does every hub need? An acronym! We are now the Northern Realist research Team Hub (NoRTH).
NoRTH’s priorities will be to: advance the implementation of the methodology; collaborate with others focusing on realist research; contribute to and host realist education platforms; support PhD students in realist research; and continue to offer methodological expertise to those who seek it.
One thing of importance to note here is that we don’t feel we are the only big players in the North in terms of realist research – The Starks (University of Leeds) are obviously the long term true Kings of the North, with Professor Ray Pawson at the helm (our Jon Snow) for many years, and Nick Emmel, Joanne Greenhalgh, and Ana Manzano (Bran, Sansa and Arya) now fighting strong. But being ‘Northumbria University’, the acronym NoRTH seemed too good to resist… please take this blog as a token of our affection and don’t give us a fate like that of the Red Wedding!
2. Winter’s coming… along with a workshop in realist approaches
Winter is coming and soon we’ll have dark nights and frosty mornings, but never fear; alongside winter we have a brilliant offer of a Realist Approaches Workshop. Like Daenerys, mother of dragons, we wanted to educate others and decided one way to do this would be to provide a workshop. Whilst we can’t promise dragons, rebirths in blood and fire, or steamy scenes with Jon Snow, we can offer a fantastic line up of realist researchers, ready to take you on an exciting methodological journey.
Day 1 of the workshop will focus on Basic Principles of Realist Research, whilst day two will focus on contemporary developments such as realist ethnography and realist economic evaluation. To find out more and to book, check out the website.
3. ‘Doing Realist Research’ – a new book
As much as a lot of people claim to be Game of Thrones fans, how many of them have actually read the original books? TV series and films can bring whole worlds to life before our eyes, make characters into living people, but books take you into the detail, the nooks and crannies of the story. For example, the maps in Martin’s book displaying the geography of the mythical Kingdom aren’t as well portrayed in the TV series, despite efforts in the opening titles. Books provide the details that are often overlooked yet important in really understanding the overall story or the characters. Thus, if interested in realist research, I would like to suggest you read the new book ‘Doing Realist Research’, available to pre-order now), which provides much more detail on realist approaches, covering topics such as: realist review problem-solving, literature searching for realist reviews and mechanisms at higher levels of abstraction.
Edited by Nick Emmel, Joanne Greenhalgh, Ana Manzano (The Starks), Mark Monaghan and myself, this book celebrates the possible ways in which realism can contribute to researching complex social puzzles, providing practical advice on the ‘how to’ of realist methods.
Similar to Game of Thrones, so far, it’s received rave reviews, like that from Professor Kieran Walshe, (University of Manchester): “I wish all social science researchers would read this book”. Best of all, it has absolutely no Game of Thrones references – and that’s a promise (similar to that of Ned Starks to Lynna Stark in the infamous Tower of Joy Scene)…
Many thanks to Dr Phil Hodgson (Northumbria University) for helping me in identifying so many obvious Game of Thrones parallels with realist research…
Image: "Game of Thrones. Xbox One. 1080.P. 😁 Gameplay Part.04.-06. On my YouTube Channel 😁 https://youtube.com/playlist?list=PLwsjII0MclEGZnmdii3LZb9FZLby_iP4Q 😁 by Rob Obsidian via Flickr.com, copyright © 2015: https://www.flickr.com/photos/65092514@N08/18679295525