• concrete utopianism;
  • critical realism;
  • critical theory;
  • evidence-based practice;
  • randomized controlled trials

PORTER S and O’HALLORAN P. Nursing Inquiry 2012; 19: 18–28 The use and limitation of realistic evaluation as a tool for evidence-based practice: a critical realist perspective

In this paper, we assess realistic evaluation’s articulation with evidence-based practice (EBP) from the perspective of critical realism. We argue that the adoption by realistic evaluation of a realist causal ontology means that it is better placed to explain complex healthcare interventions than the traditional method used by EBP, the randomized controlled trial (RCT). However, we do not conclude from this that the use of RCTs is without merit, arguing that it is possible to use both methods in combination under the rubric of realist theory. More negatively, we contend that the rejection of critical theory and utopianism by realistic evaluation in favour of the pragmatism of piecemeal social engineering means that it is vulnerable to accusations that it promotes technocratic interpretations of human problems. We conclude that, insofar as realistic evaluation adheres to the ontology of critical realism, it provides a sound contribution to EBP, but insofar as it rejects the critical turn of Bhaskar’s realism, it replicates the technocratic tendencies inherent in EBP.