Current use was established and Cochrane guidance on selection of social theories for systematic reviews of complex interventions was developed

J Clin Epidemiol. 2016 Jul:75:78-92. doi: 10.1016/j.jclinepi.2015.12.009. Epub 2016 Jan 6.


Objective: To identify examples of how social theories are used in systematic reviews of complex interventions to inform production of Cochrane guidance.

Study design and setting: Secondary analysis of published/unpublished examples of theories of social phenomena for use in reviews of complex interventions identified through scoping searches, engagement with key authors and methodologists supplemented by snowballing and reference searching. Theories were classified (low-level, mid-range, grand).

Results: Over 100 theories were identified with evidence of proliferation over the last 5 years. New low-level theories (tools, taxonomies, etc) have been developed for classifying and reporting complex interventions. Numerous mid-range theories are used; one example demonstrated how control theory had changed the review's findings. Review-specific logic models are increasingly used, but these can be challenging to develop. New low-level and mid-range psychological theories of behavior change are evolving. No reviews using grand theory (e.g., feminist theory) were identified. We produced a searchable Wiki, Mendeley Inventory, and Cochrane guidance.

Conclusions: Use of low-level theory is common and evolving; incorporation of mid-range theory is still the exception rather than the norm. Methodological work is needed to evaluate the contribution of theory. Choice of theory reflects personal preference; application of theory is a skilled endeavor.

Keywords: Cochrane; Complex intervention; Guidance; Methodology; Systematic review; Theory.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Epidemiologic Research Design*
  • Humans
  • Review Literature as Topic*
  • Social Theory*