3.7: Where does Program Theory of Change come from?

Your program theory may arise from one or more of:

  • Local knowledge and wisdom
  • Research and evidence base
  • “Best” or “promising” practices
  • Evaluation studies
  • Other lessons from the field
  • General social science theory of change

Often our programs are grounded, either explicitly or implicitly, in one of the general social science theories of change. The most common used in our education and outreach programs include:

  • Stages of change or “trans-theoretical” model: Individuals move through a series of distinct stages or steps when making a change that involves a variety of activities and experiences of weighing pros and cons to the change and is influenced by confidence and temptation.
  • Diffusion of innovation: Change occurs when an innovation is shared and communicated throughout a social system.
  • Ecological systems: People are part of systems with behavioral change being influenced by a complex of physical and external variables.
  • Empowerment: People change when their own needs, values and strengths are recognized and built upon.
  • Social marketing: While not a grand social science theory, many education and outreach programs apply the concept of social marketing to increase the acceptability of an idea or practice.

Who decides or determines the final version of program theory? Stakeholders? Staff? Researchers? Evaluators?

Wholey (1987) and Patton (1989) emphasize the role of stakeholders and program staff in a utilization-focused approach to program planning and evaluation. Chen and Rossi (1980, 1983) give credence to social science expertise and knowledge. The best idea appears to involve both the practitioner and researcher (Weiss, 1998).

More on Theories of Change

Learn more about Social Science Theories of Change.

Support Extension