Proximal, distal, and the politics of causation: what's level got to do with it?

Am J Public Health. 2008 Feb;98(2):221-30. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2007.111278. Epub 2008 Jan 2.


Causal thinking in public health, and especially in the growing literature on social determinants of health, routinely employs the terminology of proximal (or downstream) and distal (or upstream). I argue that the use of these terms is problematic and adversely affects public health research, practice, and causal accountability. At issue are distortions created by conflating measures of space, time, level, and causal strength. To make this case, I draw on an ecosocial perspective to show how public health got caught in the middle of the problematic proximal-distal divide--surprisingly embraced by both biomedical and social determinist frameworks--and propose replacing the terms proximal and distal with explicit language about levels, pathways, and power.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Causality*
  • Epidemiology*
  • Health Status Disparities
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Politics*
  • Public Health* / history
  • Social Conditions
  • Terminology as Topic