Capitals and capabilities: linking structure and agency to reduce health inequalities

Soc Sci Med. 2012 Jan;74(2):236-44. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2011.10.028. Epub 2011 Dec 7.


While empirical evidence continues to show that low socio-economic position is associated with less likely chances of being in good health, our understanding of why this is so remains less than clear. In this paper we examine the theoretical foundations for a structure-agency approach to the reduction of social inequalities in health. We use Max Weber's work on lifestyles to provide the explanation for the dualism between life chances (structure) and choice-based life conduct (agency). For explaining how the unequal distribution of material and non-material resources leads to the reproduction of unequal life chances and limitations of choice in contemporary societies, we apply Pierre Bourdieu's theory on capital interaction and habitus. We find, however, that Bourdieu's habitus concept is insufficient with regard to the role of agency for structural change and therefore does not readily provide for a theoretically supported move from sociological explanation to public health action. We therefore suggest Amartya Sen's capability approach as a useful link between capital interaction theory and action to reduce social inequalities in health. This link allows for the consideration of structural conditions as well as an active role for individuals as agents in reducing these inequalities. We suggest that people's capabilities to be active for their health be considered as a key concept in public health practice to reduce health inequalities. Examples provided from an ongoing health promotion project in Germany link our theoretical perspective to a practical experience.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Communication
  • Economics*
  • Germany
  • Government Agencies / organization & administration*
  • Health Behavior*
  • Health Knowledge, Attitudes, Practice
  • Health Promotion / organization & administration
  • Health Status Disparities*
  • Humans
  • Life Style*
  • Social Support
  • Socioeconomic Factors
  • Sociology, Medical