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A refined method for theory-based evaluation of the societal impacts of research
by Brian M. Belcher, Rachel Claus, Rachel Davel, Luisa F. Ramirez
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With high and increasing expectations for research to have social and environmental impact, there is a corresponding need for appropriate methods to demonstrate (for accountability) and analyze (for learning) whether and how research projects contribute to change processes. Evaluation is especially challenging for problem-oriented research that employs inter- and transdisciplinary approaches and intervenes in complex systems, where experimental and statistical approaches to causal inference are inappropriate.

Instead, theory-based evaluation can be applied to identify and test causal processes. This paper presents a detailed explanation of the Outcome Evaluation approach applied in Belcher et al. (2019). It draws on concepts and approaches used in theory-based program evaluation and the more limited experience of theory-based research evaluation, providing a brief overview of conceptual strengths and limitations of other methods. The paper offers step-by-step guidance on application of the Outcome Evaluation approach, detailing how to: document a theory of change; determine data needs and sources; collect data; manage and analyze data; and present findings.

This approach provides a clear conceptual and analytical framework in addition to actor-specific and impact pathway analyses for more precision in the assessment of outcomes.

Specifically, the Outcome Evaluation approach:

  • Conceptualizes research within a complex system and explicitly recognizes the role of other actors, context, and external processes;
  • Utilizes a detailed actor-centred theory of change (ToC) as the analytical framework; and
  • Explicitly tests a set of hypotheses about the relationship between the research process/outputs and outcomes.
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