Causal narratives in public health: the difference between mechanisms of aetiology and mechanisms of prevention in non-communicable diseases

Sociol Health Illn. 2018 Jan;40(1):82-99. doi: 10.1111/1467-9566.12621. Epub 2017 Oct 11.


Research in the health sciences has been highly successful in revealing the aetiologies of many morbidities, particularly those involving the microbiology of communicable disease. This success has helped form a narrative to be found in numerous public health documents, about interventions to reduce the burden of non-communicable diseases (e.g., obesity or alcohol related pathologies). These focus on tackling the purported pathogenic factors causing the diseases as a means of prevention. In this paper, we argue that this approach has been sub-optimal. The mechanisms of aetiology and of prevention are sometimes significantly different and failure to make this distinction has hindered efforts at preventing non-communicable diseases linked to diet, exercise and alcohol consumption. We propose a sociological approach as an alternative based on social practice theory. (A virtual abstract for this paper can be found at:

Keywords: alcohol; behaviour change; non-communicable disease; public health; social practice.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Alcohol Drinking / adverse effects
  • Health Behavior
  • Health Policy
  • Humans
  • Narration*
  • Noncommunicable Diseases / prevention & control*
  • Public Health*
  • Risk Factors
  • Social Theory*