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Theory building on the high seas of population health: Love Boat, Mutiny on the Bounty, or Poseidon Adventure?
  1. Richard 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 Political Science, University of Kansas; Environmental Studies Program, University of Kansas, Lawrence, 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}

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The complexity of health is a vast, seductive ocean that beckons us—challenging us to explore, navigate, and often battle against waves of ideas—within ourselves and among others.

We thank the three authors for their commentaries on our “Guide and Glossary.” We hoped that our article would stimulate discussion about the importance of theory and theory building for population health, but to be honest, we had no idea how the paper would be received. You can imagine, then, our excitement at being asked by the editors to reply to the three interesting commentaries published herein.

As we point out—and Dunn reiterates in his commentary—theory is a topic that regretfully, receives little attention in population health. We have been pleased to see that others share similarly strong opinions regarding the importance of theory. This is evident in all three commentaries. It was also abundantly evident in the review process for our article. We engaged in a lively debate with reviewers—and those exchanges (which were longer than the original manuscript) reinforced our beliefs that population health research could benefit from a more public discussion regarding the role of theory in research.

In this essay, we respond to points raised by the commentators as they pertain both to our “Guide and Glossary” and, more broadly, to facilitating theoretically driven research in population health. However, before addressing particular issues, we want to reiterate the specific aims of our “Guide and Glossary,” as each commentary alludes to some misunderstandings about our motivations, arguments, and rationale.

Our article has two basic aims. Firstly, we contend that researchers should use theory explicitly—rather than implicitly. Our focus on the explicit use of theory is guided by our shared belief that clearly communicating one’s theoretical approach will more effectively contribute to and advance our shared understanding of population health and …

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  • Competing interests: none.

    Funding: none.

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