Epidemiological sociology and the social shaping of population health

J Health Soc Behav. 2008 Dec;49(4):367-84. doi: 10.1177/002214650804900401.


When biomedical knowledge and technology create the capacity for humans to avoid disease and circumvent early death, sociological factors become more, not less important for population health. The transformation of disease causation from cruel fate, accident, and bad luck to circumstances that are under some degree of human control facilitates a powerful social shaping of disease and death. When humans have control, it is their policies, their knowledge, and their behaviors that shape the consequences of biomedical accomplishments, and thereby extant patterns of disease and death. I propose a "social shaping approach" that can frame our understanding of these processes and allow us to take action to optimize population health. Support for this approach is garnered from evidence of dramatic improvements in population health and in the uneven distribution of those improvements across persons, places, and times. Health improvements suggest that humans have gained control of disease whereas the uneven and very slow spread of such improvements underscores the critical importance of social factors. But the evidence presented represents a stick figure at best, one that needs to be filled in by a well-supported "epidemiological sociology" that uses a wide range of sociological concepts and theories to elucidate the social shaping of disease and death. Absent a robust societal investment in epidemiological sociology, population health will reside below its optimal level and the maldistribution of health-enhancing innovations will continue to create health disparities.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Epidemiologic Methods*
  • Health Status Disparities
  • Humans
  • Interpersonal Relations*
  • Lung Neoplasms / epidemiology
  • Smoking / epidemiology
  • Social Support*
  • Sociology, Medical / methods
  • Sociology, Medical / statistics & numerical data*
  • United States / epidemiology