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Practical theory in health communication

Gestalt psychologist Kurt Lewin is famously known to have said, "There is nothing so practical as a good theory." Theoretical approaches to the study of health communication are crucial to the accumulation of empirical research and the ability to make useful recommendations to health practitioners and consumers. On the one hand, a theory allows researchers to make meaning of their results by providing a systematic framework with which to interpret, connect, and make meaning of findings across studies. On the other hand, variable analytic research-research that assesses relationships between variables in the absence of theory-often leads to a long list of findings that sometimes coalesce, sometimes contradict, and sometimes simply do not relate. For an amusing satirical article about the futility of variable analytic research, consider reading Michael Pacanowsky's review of studies about why people "pass the salt" (citation below, written under the pseudonym of Murdoch Pencil).

I was reminded of theory's importance after reading Rui's blog post from October 25 in which she mentioned how her recent paper's findings contradicted what one might intuitively expect. Not only that, but her results also (importantly) opposed what many previous studies have found about the beneficial effects of subsequent communications after exposure to a health advertisement. Theory can ultimately reconcile these findings and account for the conditions under which communication can help or hinder health campaign effects. Without a theory to make sense of contradictory research, recommendations that researchers make to health practitioners will ebb and flow without a consistent direction, subject to the most recent study's findings that do not clearly inform or sensibly add to what is already known.

Health communication researchers are in the business of investigating important issues that have implications to many people's well-being. These are practical problems that necessitate good theories.

Pencil, M. (1976). Salt passage research: The state of the art. Journal of Communication, 26, 31-36. doi:10.1111/j.1460-2466.1976.tb01932.x

Adam Richards
Department of Communication at the University of Maryland
2011 CCRC Doctoral Fellow

Written by CCRC at 13:00

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