Is our work dangerous? Should it be?

J Health Soc Behav. 1998 Mar;39(1):7-17.


Three case histories show how work in the medical social sciences--to the extent that such work reveals the origins of health problems in social structures of wealth and power--can become dangerous enough to threaten one's livelihood and in some instances one's very life. In this presentation, I encourage critical and engaged scholarship by referring to examples of dangerous work that should receive more attention: social medicine in Latin America and the critique of managerial ideology in the United States. Although social medicine has become a widely respected field of research, teaching, and clinical practice in Latin America, its accomplishments remain little known in the English-speaking world. For centuries, indigenous cultures in Latin America have held belief systems linking social conditions to patterns of illness and death. Latin American accounts of social medicine's history emphasize its European origins, especially in the contributions of Rudolf Virchow. In the United States, with the impact of the Flexner Report (1910) and its supporters, Virchow's vision of social medicine went into decline. On the other hand, in Latin America, social medicine flourished as a focus of education and research. Since social medicine's "golden age" during the 1930s, teachers, researchers, and practitioners have produced major achievements despite the dangers of this work, which in several instances have included torture, imprisonment, or death. An ideology favoring managerial decision making in the United States has influenced crucial policy decisions, and the justifications for these decisions have manifested symbolic politics in addition to the evaluation of factual evidence. With ambiguous empirical support, managerial ideology has fostered the general growth of managed care, the implementation of Medicaid managed care by state governments, the expansion of managed care in rural areas, and the impact of "evidence-based medicine" on policy and clinical decisions. If the occupational risks of critical work in the medical social sciences are not taken, we forfeit some of the most important gifts offered by "the sociological imagination."

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Awards and Prizes
  • Dangerous Behavior*
  • Health Policy
  • Humans
  • Latin America
  • Political Systems
  • Social Medicine*
  • Sociology, Medical
  • United States