Prevention Science [PREV] pp1100-prev-480026 January 21, 2004 12:28 Style ﬁle version Nov. 04, 2000
Prevention Science, Vol. 5, No. 1, March 2004 (
Contextualism and the Development
of Effective Prevention Practices
Widespread and effective implementation of research-based prevention practices will be facil-
itated by the explicit adoption of a functional contextualist framework for prevention research.
Such a framework has as its central goal predicting and inﬂuencing behavior and cultural prac-
tices. Research within this framework is evaluated in terms of its ability to contribute to that
goal. As a result, it contributes directly to the ultimate goals of prevention science—affecting
the incidence and prevalence of problems in populations. The approach contrasts with the
mechanist framework, which is implicit in much behavioral science research. The mechanist
framework has as its truth criterion the predictive veriﬁcation of models of the interrelation-
ships among variables. Such models can—but need not—identify manipulable variables that
can be exploited to affect problems of interest. Such models require the inclusion of multiple
cases for testing and this requirement may impede the tendency of scientists to work with a
single school or community. Functional contextualism is suited to the study of the individual
case. It provides a framework within which researchers can more readily collaborate with
practitioners in the development and further evaluation of practices within the settings where
practitioners will ultimately use those practices.
KEY WORDS: functional contextualism; philosophy of science; mechanism; science to practice.
Analysis of the philosophical assumptions un-
derlying scientiﬁc practices may facilitate translating
prevention research into widespread, effective prac-
tice. Although philosophy of science was much dis-
cussed in the mid-twentieth century (e.g., Cronbach
& Meehl, 1955; MacCorquodale & Meehl, 1948;
Skinner, 1945), behavioral scientists seldom discuss
it now. Yet, implicit assumptions underpin the way
that we do science and some of our assumptions
may have a profound impact on whether or not
our science ultimately beneﬁts society. This paper
discusses two contrasting assumptive systems for sci-
entiﬁc inquiry—mechanism and contextualism—and
examines their implications for the integration of
science and practice.
Pepper (1942) called generic systems for under-
standing and analysis world hypotheses. We might
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think of them as very general paradigms (Kuhn, 1970).
Pepper argued that there are four relatively ade-
quate world hypotheses, each characterized by a root
metaphor and a truth criterion. A root metaphor is a
common, everyday phenomenon that helps us to orga-
nize our thinking and analysis. What do phenomena in
the world resemble? They are like machines or plants.
The metaphor one uses affects how one analyzes hu-
man behavior or cultural practices (Biglan, 1995). In
particular, one can characterize each world hypothe-
sis in terms of its truth criterion—the basis upon which
an analysis is said to be valid. Although Pepper identi-
ﬁed four hypotheses, this paper discusses only the two
that seem to have the most bearing on the relationship
between science and practice.
The root metaphor of mechanism is the machine.
How do we understand the world? It is like a machine.
To understand a machine, you understand its parts, the
2004 Society for Prevention Research