Background. Critical realism is a relatively new philosophical perspective that combines a realist ontology with a relativist epistemology in subscribing to a form of ‘robust’ relativism. The potential benefits of adopting a critical realist approach are considered in two areas of evaluation research: theory-driven programme evaluation and policy evaluation.
Aim. The aim of the paper is to identify the main features of critical realism and explore its potential as a philosophical framework in the field of evaluation research.
Conclusion. We argue that critical realism provides a coherent framework for evaluation research that is based on the understanding of causal mechanisms. This is particularly important for frontline services seeking to use evidence-based interventions, as interventions need to be properly understood if they are to be used effectively in the context of clinical practice. Critical realism can also add depth to policy analysis. However, there is a potential for critical realists to drift beyond the boundary that separates scientific knowledge from speculative theory when making recommendations about the best course of action to follow.