Pyramids, ladders, and traveling theories

Joan Miro, The Escape Ladder

Argument pyramids

In previous blogs, I argued that theories of change are really about a process of reaching a shared understanding, systematically examining your assumptions and quality of evidence underpinning the judgements you make.

Ladders of abstraction

These different levels of theory also reflect different levels of abstraction. As Mel Punton et al. (2020) recently noted, theories of change don’t often hypothesise what goes on underneath the arrows that link outputs, outcomes, and impacts. They’re commonly too abstract and insufficiently evaluable.

Nested theories of change

Ladders of abstraction also speak to how we build theory and what we’re trying to communicate through that theory. How “major” are your premises? How much support might they need?

  1. Overview — big picture — theory of change which provides a simplified model showing the main pathways to impact (including propositions) and any rationale assumptions (or paradigmatic and normative assumptions).
  2. Operational — causal — theory of change which unpacks key steps in impact pathways and articulates causal links (necessary events and conditions), as well as causal assumptions and implementation assumptions which apply to parts of the ToC but not the ToC as a whole (as in an overview theory).

Usefully transferable theory

The ineluctable urge in evaluation, by both the tide of Randomised Control Trials (RCTs) and theory-based methods like Contribution Tracing, Contribution Analysis, and the Qualitative Impact Assessment Protocol (QuIP) has been to seek the most granular applications and explanations. While the most granular applications can be more rigorous, they can also be more context-sensitive. They can run the risk of leaving policymakers with a big “so what?” question, because they’re not just looking for what worked here, yesterday; they’re looking for what will work over there tomorrow.

I'm an independent consultant specialising in theory-based and participatory evaluation methods.