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5 Steps to Identifying the Right Theoretical Framework for Your Program or Intervention

Why do we need theories for program development?

As social change agents, we may be required to design an intervention to address a social problem. To do this effectively, we must first ask the question “ Why does this problem exist?” Understanding why a problem exist is a first and very important step to figuring out what interventon will be most effective in addressing the problem.

So, what are theories?

Theories are summaries of formal or informal observations, presented in a systematic, structured way, that help explain, predict, describe or manage behavior

They help us accomplish three things:

  • Explain factors that cause behavior or a health problem
  • Describe the relationships among these factors
  • Define the conditions under which these relationships exist and do not exist

Theories help us answer two question: Why does a problem exist? What strategy will most effectively address a problem?

Dr. Chinnie Nnorom

How do we identify the right theory to explain, describe, or define a problem?

First, we must always keep in mind that there is no one theory that is right or wrong. However, one theory may be more appropriate in explaining, describing or defining a problem than another. 

With that in mind, you can apply the following steps to identify an appropriate theoretical framework for your program:

Step 1: Start From the Known:

The first thing you want to do is review the literature or collect data to identify factors or perceived factors that motivate the behavior/problem or explain associations between certain factors and behavior outcomes. Your goal is to identify all behaviors or circumstances that might cause or be associated with the problem. Remember that most social good problems have at least one behavioral antecedent, and every behavior has a cause.

Step 2: Group Antecedents Into Appropriate Causal Factor Dimension

You can place the factors you identified in Step 1 into groups based on the levels of problem causation – as described below:

There are five levels of causal factors:

  1. Intrapersonal level – People’s knowledge, attitude and skills
  2. Interpersonal level – the beliefs and actions of a person’s friends, family members, or coworkers
  3. Institutional or organizational level – The policies and practices of the civic, religious, social, political, and related organizations with which the person is affiliated
  4. Community level: The attributes, resources, and norms of the community with which the person is affiliated
  5. Public policy level: The content of public policies, laws, and regulations that affect the person.

For example, in the case of a teen who texts while driving, a quick look at some publications suggest that teens text and drive for the following reasons:

  • They do not know the consequences that come with texting and driving
  • They believe there is too small of a chance for them to get hurt, 
  • They do it to show off

These reasons are not exhaustive, but looking closely at these behavior motivations, you can instantly group a bunch of them at the intrapersonal
(i.e knowledge, attitude, skills, and the beliefs) and interpersonal level( actions of family and friends).

Step 3: Make A Long List of Theories in Causal Factor Dimensions

Once you have identified the level at which the factors identified in step 1 occur, you should then look for theories in that level. There are theories relevant to each of these five levels, as well as those that cover all five levels. For example, if you are in the public health field, this resource highlights common health-related theories for each level. You can also google search “ “practice area” theories. e.g  criminal justice theories to get a list of the common theoretical framework that applies to your area of practice.

“there is no one theory that is right or wrong. However, a theory may be more appropriate in explaining, describing or defining a problem than another.”

Step 4: Match Causal Factors with Theoretical Constructs

Carefully read each theory at the level you’ve identified. In doing so, pay attention to what the theory proposes, including its constructs. Determine if the proposition of the theory as well as it’s constructs align with behavoral antecedents you identified from the literature or needs asessments you conducted earlier in step one.

Step 5: Short List & Select

Finally we can go further to make a short list of these theories based on the one that most closely explains the relationship between the behavior motivations identified and the problem (teen texting while driving). 

Using the “teen texting while driving” example above, we can consider exploring intrapersonal and interpersonal theories like the Health Belief Model (HBM), Theory of planned behavior (TPB), stages of change model, empowerment theory e.t.c)

For example, if teens text while driving because they do not know the consequences that come with texting and driving,  they believe that there is a small chance that they will get hurt, and they want to show off, we can safely assume (based on the Health Belief Model, and the theory of reasoned action)  that if they knew the consequences that come with texting and driving, they feel the chances of their getting hurt is everything but small, and there won’t be any social gratification for that behavior – they will not text and drive.

How can we then use this information to design an intervention?

We’ll discuss those in future blogs.

If you have additional thoughts on how to identify and appropriate theoretical framework for your nonprofit program, fell free to drop them in the comments box.

And don’t forget to drop your comments as well regarding other topics you would like me to blog about…

To Working Strategies & Authentic Results,

It’s Chinnie & Team

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