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SELECTING A THEORY OR CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK

There is not an agreed upon set of criteria, operational guidance, recipe, or step-bystep approach for selecting theories or conceptual frameworks to guide intervention development, evaluation, or their wide-scale implementation (French et al., 2012). However, we recommend several actions be taken. First, it is important to identify the specific phase along the pipeline that reflects the level of the intervention’s development. Placement along the pipeline helps to anchor the specific research questions that will be asked and thus the role of the theory/conceptual framework (e.g., see Figure 4.1). Second, a literature review should be conducted to identify the ways in which the targeted problem area has been previously addressed, including the theories employed to understand it. Also, a literature review should be used to consider the empirical evidence as to how and why the problem area occurs, which may in turn help to suggest an appropriate theoretical framework for proceeding with an intervention. Third, selecting a theory/conceptual framework at any phase along the pipeline will depend upon one’s intent, preferred approach to understanding and explaining phenomenon, and the target of change. As to the latter, different theories are needed depending upon whether the target of the intervention is at the individual (behavioral, cognitive, affective, knowledge), interpersonal, community, organization, or at the policy level (National Cancer Institute, 2005). Minimally, the theory or conceptual framework that is ultimately selected should be well developed and have some supportive empirical evidence for its basic tenets.

The Medical Research Council also recommends applying several self-reflective questions to guide theory selection (www.mrc.ac/uk/complexinterventionsguidance). These include what follows: Are you clear about what you are trying to do? What outcome are you aiming for? How will you bring about change? Does your intervention have a coherent theoretical basis? Have you used theory systematically to develop the intervention? These are essential questions that can guide theory selection.

The Improved Clinical Effectiveness through Behavioural Research Group (ICEBeRG) (2006) has identified six factors to consider when selecting a theory for implementation science. These include determining the origins of the theory (e.g., is there evidence to support its basic tenets?); examining the concepts of the theory and their interrelationships; evaluating the consistency of the theory (e.g., is there a logical structure?); considering the extent to which generalizations can be made on the basis of the theory and whether there is parsimony (e.g., can the theory be stated simply and clearly?); determining if the theory can generate testable hypotheses; and evaluating its utility (e.g., whether the theory is helpful in understanding or predicting outcomes).

 
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