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date: 08 May 2021

Implementation Sciencefree

  • Suzanne Heurtin-RobertsSuzanne Heurtin-RobertsUniversity of Maryland
  •  and Heather Schacht ReisingerHeather Schacht ReisingerUniversity of Iowa


This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Anthropology. Please check back later for the full article.

Research has produced a substantial body of knowledge that has the significant possibility to improve human health and well-being. Much of that knowledge is published, yet read only by other researchers. Alternatively, this research becomes “evidence-based practice,” (EBP) knowledge obtained under specific controlled conditions that is meant to improve some aspect of human health or wellbeing. The world where humans live their everyday lives tends to be complex and messy. These EBP’s, when employed in the scientifically uncontrolled world, are frequently ineffective.

Implementation science (IS) is a relatively new but rapidly growing field intended to remedy this situation. IS was established to study the most effective strategies to integrate evidence-based interventions into public and community health and health care delivery. IS asks whether an intervention can be effectively delivered in a specific local context, that is, “under what conditions and in what contexts can any change-oriented action be effective in the real world?”

Anthropology has contributed significantly to implementation science, yet it can contribute much more. Well-equipped to answer many of the questions posed by IS, anthropology’s theory and methods allow us to understand and broker both emic and etic perspectives and to represent the richness, fluidity, and complexity of context. Both anthropology and IS recognize the importance of context and locality, are real-world oriented, and embrace complexity and non-linearity. Both are comfortable with the emergent nature of research-produced knowledge, and both employ both qualitative and quantitative methods.

Beyond these congruencies in perspectives and approaches, the rationale for having more anthropology in implementation science is not only because it’s a good fit. Anthropology attends to power structures and differentials, phenomena that, while sometimes included in IS, are not frequently critiqued. Anthropology can furnish a questioning, critical perspective of the object of study and how it’s studied, a perspective that is lacking in much IS work. Indeed, this is something that anthropology does best, and it is integral to anthropology’s conceptual orientation.