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What theory, for whom and in which context? reflections on the application of theory in the development and evaluation of complex population health interventions

Moore, Graham and Evans, Rhiannon Emily 2017. What theory, for whom and in which context? reflections on the application of theory in the development and evaluation of complex population health interventions. SSM - Population Health 3 , pp. 132-135. 10.1016/j.ssmph.2016.12.005

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Abstract

Recent years have seen a growing emphasis on the value of building and testing middle range theory throughout the development and evaluation of complex population health interventions. We agree that a coherent theoretical basis for intervention development, and use of evaluation to test key causal assumptions and build theory, are crucial. However, in this editorial, we argue that such recommendations have often been operationalised in somewhat simplistic terms with potentially perverse consequences, and that an uncritical assumption that an intervention explicitly based on theory is inherently superior carries significant risks. We first argue that the drive for theory-based approaches may have exacerbated a propensity to select ‘off-the-shelf’ theories, leading to the selection of inappropriate theories which distract attention from the mechanisms through which a problem is actually sustained. Second, we discuss a tendency toward over-reliance on individual-level theorising. Finally, we discuss the relatively slow progress of population health intervention research in attending to issues of context, and the ecological fit of interventions with the systems whose functioning they attempt to change. We argue that while researchers should consider a broad range of potential theoretical perspectives on a given population health problem, citing a popular off-the-shelf theory as having informed an intervention and its evaluation does not inherently make for better science. Before identifying or developing a theory of change, researchers should develop a clear understanding of how the problem under consideration is created and sustained in context. A broader conceptualisation of theory that reaches across disciplines is vital if theory is to enhance, rather than constrain, the contribution of intervention research. Finally, intervention researchers need to move away from viewing interventions as discrete packages of components which can be described in isolation from their contexts, and better understand the systems into which change is being introduced.

Item Type: Article
Date Type: Publication
Status: Published
Schools: Development and Evaluation of Complex Interventions for Public Health Improvement (DECIPHer)
Social Sciences (Includes Criminology and Education)
Uncontrolled Keywords: Theory; Evaluation; Research methods; Public health
Publisher: Elsevier
ISSN: 2352-8273
Last Modified: 12 Jan 2017 15:09
URI: http://orca.cf.ac.uk/id/eprint/97014

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