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Table 1 Philosophical assumptions underpinning approaches to research impact

From: Research impact: a narrative review

Perspective Positivist Constructivist Realist Critical Performative
Assumptions about what [research] knowledge is Facts (especially statements on relationships between variables), independent of researchers and transferable to new contexts Explanations/interpretations of a situation or phenomenon, considering the historical, cultural and social context Studies of how people interpret external reality, producing statements on ‘what works for whom in what circumstances’ Studies that reveal society’s inherent conflicts and injustices and give people the tools to challenge their oppression Knowledge is brought into being and enacted in practice by actor-networks of people and technologies
Assumed purpose of research Predictive generalisations (‘laws’) Meaning: perhaps in a single, unique case Theoretical generalisation (what tends to work and why) Learning, emancipation, challenge To map the changing dynamics of actor-networks
Preferred research methods Hypothesis-testing; experiments; modelling and measurement Naturalistic inquiry (i.e. in real-world conditions) Predominantly naturalistic, may combine quantitative and qualitative data Participatory [action] research Naturalistic, with a focus on change over time and network [in]stability
Assumed way to achieve quality in research Hierarchy of preferred study designs; standardised instruments to help eliminate bias Reflexive theorising; consideration of multiple interpretations; dialogue and debate Abduction (what kind of reasoning by human actors could explain these findings in this context?) Measures to address power imbalances (ethos of democracy, conflict management); research capacity building in community partner(s) Richness of description; plausible account of the network and how it changes over time
Assumed relationship between science and values Science is inherently value-neutral (though research can be used for benign or malevolent motives) Science can never be value-neutral; the researcher’s perspective must be made explicit Facts are interpreted and used by people who bring particular values and views Science must be understood in terms of what gave rise to it and the interests it serves Controversial; arguably, Actor-Network Theory is consistent with a value-laden view of science
Assumed mechanism through which impact is achieved Direct (new knowledge will influence practice and policy if the principles and methods of implementation science are followed) Mainly indirect (e.g. via interaction/enlightenment of policymakers and influencing the ‘mindlines’ of clinicians) Interaction between reasoning (of policymakers, practitioners, etc.) and resources available for implementing findings Development of critical consciousness; partnership-building; lobbying; advocacy ‘Translations’ (stable changes in the actor-network), achieved by actors who mobilise other actors into new configurations
Implications for the study of research impact ‘Logic models’ will track how research findings (transferable facts about what works) are disseminated, taken up and used for societal benefit Outcomes of social interventions are unpredictable; impact studies should focus on ‘activities and interactions’ to build relations with policymakers Impact studies should address variability in uptake and use of research by exploring context-mechanism-outcome-impact configurations Impact has a political dimension; research may challenge the status quo; some stakeholders stand to lose power, whereas others may gain For research to have impact, a re-alignment of actors (human/technological) is needed; focus on the changing ‘actor-scenario’ and how this gets stabilised in the network