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Table 1 Levels of theory in the social sciences

From: Harnessing the power of theorising in implementation science

 DefinitionCharacteristicsTypes and examples
Grand theoriesAll-inclusive systematic efforts to develop a master conceptual scheme, often aspiring to present a unified theory of the social world- Formulated at a high level of abstraction, often without an underlying empirical base
- Non-specific and may lack clear operational definitions of key concepts
- Often loosely knit and internally diversified
- Less amenable to empirical testing; sometimes unfalsifiable
- Overarching theoretical perspectives through which one sees and interprets the world (e.g. feminist theory and critical theory)
- Theoretical oeuvres of sociological classics (e.g. Bourdieu, Giddens, and Marx)
Mid-range theoriesTheories that lie between the working hypotheses that evolve in abundance during day-to-day research and the all-encompassing speculations comprising a master conceptual scheme- Delimited in their area of application
- Demonstrate strong interdependence with empirical observations
- Specify mechanisms, i.e. social processes having designated consequences for designated parts of the social structure
- Not usually derived from grand theories but are often influenced by or consistent with one or several of them
- Lower-order: theories aggregating individual programme theories of similar interventions [13]
- Core implementation science theories (e.g. Normalisation Process Theory [14] and i-PARIHS [Integrated Promoting Action on Research Implementation in Health Services] framework [15])
- Higher order: consolidating frameworks combining a number of constructs from pre-existing mid-range theories (e.g. CFIR [Consolidated Framework for Implementation Research] [16] or TDF [Theoretical Domains Framework] [17])
Programme theories‘Small theories’ providing a sensible and plausible explanation about how a specific policy, intervention, or project is supposed to function and achieve its objectives- Purposefully practical and accessible, providing concrete working models rather than higher-level abstractions
- Uncover assumptions about the mechanisms linking the intervention’s inputs, components, and processes to its outcomes
- Involve informal elements representing the perspectives of intervention stakeholders
- Usually provisional and subject to modification in the course of an intervention
- Programme theories of individual implementation and improvement projects [18]
- Programme theories of large-scale and composite knowledge translation initiatives, such as the National Institute for Health Research Collaborations for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care (NIHR CLAHRCs) [19] or the Quality Enhancement Research Initiative (QUIERI) [20]