A theoretical and empirical analysis of context: neighbourhoods, smoking and youth

Soc Sci Med. 2002 May;54(9):1401-17. doi: 10.1016/s0277-9536(01)00122-8.


Numerous studies are currently addressing the issue of contextual effects on health and disease outcomes. The majority of these studies fall short of providing a theoretical basis with which to explain what context is and how it affects individual disease outcomes. We propose a theoretical model, entitled collective lifestyles, which brings together three concepts from practice theory: social structure, social practices and agency. We do so in an attempt to move away from both behavioural and structural-functionalist explanations of the differential distribution of disease outcomes among areas by including a contextualisation of health behaviours that considers their meaning. We test the framework using the empirical example of smoking and pre-adolescents in 32 communities across Québec, Canada. Social structure is operationalised as characteristics and resources; characteristics are the socio-economic aggregate characteristics of individuals culled from the 1996 Canadian Census, and resources are what regulates and transforms smoking practices. Information about social practices was collected in focus groups with pre-adolescents from four of the participating communities. Using zero-order and partial correlations we find that a portrait of communities emerges. Where there is a high proportion of more socio-economically advantaged people, resources tend to be more smoking discouraging, with the opposite being true for disadvantaged communities. Upon analysis of the focus group material, however, we find that the social practices in communities do not necessarily reflect the "objectified" measures of social structure. We suggest that a different conceptualisation of accessibility and lifestyle in contextual studies may enable us to improve our grasp on how differential rates of disease come about in local areas.

Publication types

  • Evaluation Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adolescent Behavior / ethnology
  • Adolescent Behavior / psychology
  • Child
  • Child Behavior / ethnology*
  • Child Behavior / psychology
  • Cultural Deprivation
  • Focus Groups
  • Health Behavior / ethnology*
  • Humans
  • Interpersonal Relations
  • Life Style
  • Psychology, Social*
  • Quebec / epidemiology
  • Residence Characteristics*
  • Risk-Taking
  • Smoking / ethnology*
  • Smoking / psychology
  • Social Values
  • Socioeconomic Factors