Article Text

Download PDFPDF
A guide and glossary on postpositivist theory building for population health
  1. R M Carpiano1,
  2. Dorothy M Daley2
  1. 1Department of Population Health Sciences, University of Wisconsin at Madison, Madison, Wisconsin, USA; Department of Anthropology and Sociology, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
  2. 2Department of Population Health Sciences, University of Wisconsin at Madison; Department of Political Science, University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas; Environmental Studies Program, University of Kansas, USA
  1. Correspondence to:
 Dr R M Carpiano
 Department of Anthropology and Sociology, University of British Columbia, 6303 NW Marine Drive, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada V6T 1Z1; carpiano{at}


This guide and glossary focuses on the role of theory and conceptual models within population health research. Upon discussing the critical need for theory in conducting interdisciplinary research, it provides strategies for crafting theories that can be empirically tested and a glossary of theory building terms that are useful for guiding research. In addition to general concepts, the glossary includes some terminology commonly found in the social sciences, whose well established traditions and practices of formal theory building may be particularly informative for epidemiologists and other population health researchers who have minimal formal social science training, but study social factors in their research.

  • population health
  • theory
  • framework
  • model
  • research design

Statistics from

Request Permissions

If you wish to reuse any or all of this article please use the link below which will take you to the Copyright Clearance Center’s RightsLink service. You will be able to get a quick price and instant permission to reuse the content in many different ways.


  • * While we recognise that page limitations in journals may restrict the extent to which authors choose to detail the theoretical underpinnings of their research, this does not mean that diligent theorising should not have occurred in the conduct of that research. Much of what we are discussing in this glossary involves the use of theory in research, but not necessarily how this theory is conveyed in the finished manuscript. To promote interdisciplinary knowledge, however, we contend that it is important to try to effectively communicate important theoretical approaches that guide research.

  • In the spirit of the JECH glossary and the practice of prior glossary authors, 55 we encourage and invite exchange on this topic, particularly via the use of alternative approaches (for example, positivism, critical theory). In no way should this manuscript be interpreted to imply that postpositivism is the only or best approach to research.

  • Conflicts of interest: none declared.

Linked Articles

  • In this issue
    Carlos Alvarez-Dardet John R Ashton