Tuesday, June 18, 2024

On two types of Theories of Change: Emphasising differences over time versus differences over space (temporal and atemporal)

There are two quite different ways of representing theories of change – of the kind that might be useful when planning and monitoring development programmes of one kind or another.

The first kind is seen in representational devices such as the Logical Framework, Logic Models and boxes-and-arrows type diagrams. These differentiate events according to their location at different points over time, taking place between the initial provision of funding, its allocation and use and then it's subsequent effects and final impacts.

The second kind, seen less often, are seen in the analyses generated by Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA) and simple machine learning methods known as Decision Trees or Classifiers.  Here the theory is in the form of a configuration of different attributes that is associated with desired outcome, or its absence. Those attributes may be of the intervention and/or its context. More specifically, there is often more than one configuration identified, one of which will explain the outcome present in some cases and another which will explain the outcome present in some other cases. The defining feature of this approach is the focus on cases and differences between cases, rather than different moments in time. These cases are often geographical entities, or groups or persons, which have some persistence over time. They are atemporal distinctions.

Each of these approaches have their own merits. Theory of change which describes the sequence of expected events over time and how they relate to each other is useful for planning, monitoring and evaluation purposes.  But it runs the risk of assuming a homogeneity of effects across all locations where it is is implemented. On the other hand, a QCA-type configurational approach helps us identify diversity in contexts and implementations, and its consequences.

One of my current interests is exploring the possibility of combining these two approaches, such that we have theories of change that differentiate those events over time, while also differentiating cases across space where those events may or may not be happening. 

One paper which I've just been told about is exploring these possibilities, as seen from a QCA starting point:Pagliarin, S., & Gerrits, L. (2020). Trajectory-based Qualitative Comparative Analysis: Accounting for case-based time dynamics. Methodological Innovations, 13.  In this paper the authors introduce the idea of cases as different periods of time in the same location, where each of those subsequent periods of time may have various attributes of interest present or absent, along with an outcome of interest being present or absent.  This approach seems to have potential for enabling a systematic approach to within-case investigations complementing what might have been prior cross-case investigations.  There is the potential to identify specific attributes, or combinations of these, which are necessary or sufficient for changes to take place within a given case.

The paper reminded me reminded me of some evaluation fieldwork I did in Burkina Faso in 1992, where I was interviewing farmers about the history of their development of a small market garden using irrigation water obtained from a nearby lake. Looking back at the history of the market, which I think was about six years of age, I asked them to identify the most significant change that had taken place during the period of time. They identified installation of the water pump, and pointed out how it expanded the scale of their cultivation thereafter. I can remember also asking, with less recall, follow-up questions about the most significant change that it taken place in each smaller time period either side of that event, and then its consequences.  I was in effect asking them to carve up the history of the garden into segments, and sub-segments, of time not defined by calendar, but by key events – each of which had consequences.  There was the beginning of a trajectory–based configurational analysis, where each configuration consisted of a nested set of broader then narrower distinctions about time periods, which may have affected the productivity of the market garden.

To be continued…