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Background: The relationship between healthcare interventions and context is widely conceived as involving complex and dynamic interactions over time. However, evaluations of complex health interventions frequently fail to mobilise such complexity, reporting context and interventions as reified and demarcated categories. This raises questions about practices shaping knowledge about context, with implications for who and what we make visible in our research. Viewed through the lens of case study research, we draw on data collected for the Triple C study (focused on Case study, Context and Complex interventions), to critique these practices, and call for system-wide changes in how notions of context are operationalised in evaluations of complex health interventions. Methods: The Triple C study was funded by the Medical Research Council to develop case study guidance and reporting principles taking account of context and complexity. As part of this study, a one-day workshop with 58 participants and nine interviews were conducted with those involved in researching, evaluating, publishing, funding and developing policy and practice from case study research. Discussions focused on how to conceptualise and operationalise context within case study evaluations of complex health interventions. Analysis focused on different constructions and connections of context in relation to complex interventions and the wider social forces structuring participant’s accounts. Results: We found knowledge-making practices about context shaped by epistemic and political forces, manifesting as: tensions between articulating complexity and clarity of description; ontological (in)coherence between conceptualisations of context and methods used; and reified versions of context being privileged when communicating with funders, journals, policymakers and publics. Conclusion: We argue that evaluations of complex health interventions urgently requires wide-scale critical reflection on how context is mobilised - by funders, health services researchers, journal editors and policymakers. Connecting with how scholars approach complexity and context across disciplines provides opportunities for creatively expanding the field in which health evaluations are conducted, enabling a critical standpoint to long-established traditions and opening up possibilities for innovating the design of evaluations of complex health interventions.

Original publication




Journal article


BMC Health Services Research

Publication Date