Chapter Two

Theory, Research, and Practice in Health Behavior and Health Education

The Editors

Interrelationships between Theory, Research, and Practice

  • Theory, research, and practice are a continuum along which the skilled professional should move with ease.
  • Not only are they related, but they are each essential to health education and health behavior.
  • Theory and research should not be solely the province of academics, just as practice is not solely the concern of practitioners.
  • The best theory is informed by practice; the best practice should be grounded in theory.
  • There is a tension between them that one must navigate continually, but they are not in opposition. Theory and practice enrich one another by their dynamic interaction.
  • The authors of Health Behavior and Health Education examine theories in light of their applicability. By including an explanation of theories and their application in each chapter, their intention is to break down the dichotomy between theory and practice.
  • Relationships among theory, research, and practice are not simple or linear.
  • The larger picture of health improvement and disease reduction is better described as a cycle of interacting types of endeavors, including fundamental research (research into determinants, as well as development of methodologies), intervention research (research aimed toward change), surveillance research (tracking population-wide trends, including maintenance of change), and application and program delivery.

What is Theory?

  • A theory is a set of interrelated concepts, definitions, and propositions that present a systematic view of events or situations by specifying relations among variables, in order to explain and predict the events or situations.
  • The notion of generality, or broad application, is important, as is testability. Theories are by their nature abstract; that is, they do not have a specified content or topic area. Theories and models explain behavior and suggest ways to achieve behavior change.
  • An explanatory theory (often called a theory of the problem) helps describe and identify why a problem exists. Such theories also predict behaviors under defined conditions and guide the search for modifiable factors like knowledge, attitudes, self-efficacy, social support, and lack of resources.
  • Change theories, or theories of action, guide the development of interventions. They also form the basis for evaluation, pushing the evaluator to make explicit her or his assumptions about how a program should work.
    • Implementation theories are change theories that link theory specifically to a given problem, audience, and context (Institute of Medicine, 2002).

Institute of Medicine, Committee on Communication for Behavior Change in the 21st Century: Improving the Health of Diverse Populations. Speaking of Health: Assessing Health Communication Strategies for Diverse Populations. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2002.