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Bringing “context” to the methodological forefront

By Ana Manzano & Joanne Greenhalgh,

In his latest methodological writings, Prof Ray Pawson (2020) noted that the Covid-19 pandemic:

 “covers everything from micro-biology to macro-economics and all individual and institutional layers in between”.

The current global pandemic could be considered the mother of all contexts. Many will conclude that we could not reduce the impact of Covid-19 in our lives to a limited number of contextual factors such as disease, bereavement, home working, schools closures, travel bans, etc. Covid-19 was and continues to be a force that impacts everything through a complex combination of omnipresent uncertainty, fears, risk management and materiality (masks , PCR tests, and hydrogenic gel). Our paper Understanding ‘context’ in realist evaluation and synthesis (Greenhalgh & Manzano, 2021), just published in the International Journal of Social Research Methodology, reflects precisely on how methodologically complex context is and reviews how context is conceptualized and utilized in current realist evaluation and synthesis investigations.

Perhaps, the most useful of all the quotes mentioned in our paper is one of French sociologist, Raymond Boudon’s (2014, p. 43) who reminds researchers that in the social sciences, it is impossible to talk about context in general terms, since context is always defined specifically:

The question as to “What is context?” has actually no general answer, but answers specifically adapted to the challenging macroscopic puzzles the sociologist wants to disentangle.

Context is somehow everything and, in some ways has become “nothing” with many methodological writings on causality focusing on the more attractive concept of “mechanisms”. Our paper projects context from its eternal background position in peer-reviewed papers, trials and research results, to the foreground.  Although context is a key concept in developing realist causal explanations, its conceptualisation has received comparatively less attention (with notable exceptions e.g. Coldwell (2019)). We conducted a review to explore how context is conceptualised within realist reviews and evaluations published during 2018. We purposively selected 40 studies to examine: How is context defined? And how is context operationalised in the findings? We identified two key ‘narratives’ in the way context was conceptualised and mobilized to produce causal explanations: 1) Context as observable features (space, place, people, things) that triggered or blocked the intervention; assuming that context operates at one moment in time and sets in motion a chain reaction of events. 2)  Context as the relational and dynamic features that shaped the mechanisms through which the intervention works; assuming that context operates in a dynamic, emergent way over time at multiple different levels of the social system. 

We acknowledge that the use of context in realist research is unlikely to be reduced to these two forms of usage only.  However, we argue that these two narratives characterise important distinctions that have different implications for the design, goals and impact of realist reviews and evaluations.  Seeing context as a ‘thing’, that is, as a  ‘feature that triggers’ suggests that one can identify and then reproduce these contextual features in order to optimise the implementation of the intervention as intended.  This reinforces a view that it is possible to isolate ‘ideal’ contexts that determine the success of an intervention. 

On the contrary, seeing context as a dynamic interaction between contexts and mechanisms implies that contexts are infinite, embedded and uncontrollable. Knowledge gained about how contexts and mechanisms interact can be used to understand how interventions might be targeted at broadly similar contextual conditions or adapted to fit with different contextual conditions.  This latter approach eschews the idea that there are ‘optimal’ contextual conditions but argues that successful implementation requires a process of matching and adapting interventions to different evolving circumstances. 

Our paper will disappoint those who seek a practical definition that will help the ever impossible task of distinguishing mechanisms from contexts in causal explanations. We have some sympathy with Dixon-Woods’ claim (2014, p. 98) about distinguishing mechanisms from contexts in realist studies:

 I am inclined towards the view that discussions of what constitutes a mechanism rapidly become unproductive (and tedious), and that it is often impossible, close up, to distinguish mechanism from context.

Since much methodological thinking focuses on mechanisms and funders are (typically, though not exclusively)  interested in outcomes, contexts are, if anything,  rather “annoying”. Context, with its symbiotic relationship with mechanisms,  confuses and distracts researchers in their most important search for mechanisms ‘holy grail’. Our paper demonstrates that the answer to that holy grail pursuit is precisely in that symbiotic relationship, in which contexts are relational and dynamic features that shape the mechanisms through which interventions work. Context operates in a dynamic, emergent way over time at multiple different levels of social systems.

Finally, we are mindful that, in Pawson’s own words when we discussed this paper with him, ‘context’ can mean ‘absolutelybloodyeverything’ and so it is very difficult to perceive that its usage in realist research is reduced to the two forms identified in our review.

Read the full IJSRM article here.


Boudon, R. (2014). What is context? KZfSS Kölner Zeitschrift für Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie 66 (1), 17-45

Coldwell, M. (2019). Reconsidering context: Six underlying features of context to improve learning from evaluation. Evaluation, 25 (1), 99-117.

Dixon-Woods, M. (2014). The problem of context in quality improvement. Perspectives on context. London: Health Foundation. 87-101

Greenhalgh, J. and Manzano, A. (2021) Understanding ‘context’ in realist evaluation and synthesis. International Journal of Social Research Methodology. https://doi.org/10.1080/13645579.2021.1918484 Pawson, R. (2020). The Coronavirus response: A realistic agenda for evaluation. RealismLeeds Webinar July 2020. https://realism.leeds.ac.uk/realismleeds-webinar-series/

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