Is imposing risk awareness cultural imperialism?

Soc Sci Med. 1998 Nov;47(9):1155-9. doi: 10.1016/s0277-9536(98)00187-7.


Epidemiology is the main supplier of "bases of action" for preventive medicine and health promotion. Epidemiology and epidemiologists therefore have a responsibility not only for the quality and soundness of the risk estimates they deliver and for the way they are interpreted and used, but also for their consequences. In the industrialised world, the value of, and fascination with health is greater than ever, and the revelation from epidemiological research of new hazards and risks, conveyed to the public by the media, has become almost an every-day phenomenon. This "risk epidemic" in the modern media is paralleled in professional medical journals. It is in general endorsed by health promoters as a necessary foundation for increased health awareness and a desirable impetus for people to take responsibility for their own health through behavioural changes. Epidemiologists and health promoters, however, have in general not taken the possible side effects of increased risk awareness seriously enough. By increasing anxiety regarding disease, accidents and other adverse events, the risk epidemic enhances both health care dependence and health care consumption. More profoundly, and perhaps even more seriously, it changes the way people think about health, disease and death--and ultimately and at least potentially, their perspective on life more generally. The message from the odds ratios from epidemiological research advocates a rationalistic, individualistic, prospective life perspective where maximising control and minimising uncertainty is seen as a superior goal. The inconsistency between applying an expanded health concept, comprising elements of coping, self-realisation and psycho-physical functioning, and imposing intolerance to risk and uncertainty, is regularly overlooked. Acceptance and tolerance of risk and uncertainty, which are inherent elements of human life, is a prerequisite for coping and self-realisation. A further shift away from traditional working-class values like sociability, sharing, conviviality and tolerance can not be imposed without unwanted side effects on culture and human interaction. The moral and coercive crusade for increased risk awareness and purity in life style can too readily take on the form of cultural imperialism towards conformity. Epidemiologists and the health care movement in general have a mandate to fight disease and premature death; they have no explicit mandate to change culture.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological
  • Attitude to Health / ethnology*
  • Developed Countries
  • Epidemiologic Methods*
  • Ethics, Medical*
  • Health Knowledge, Attitudes, Practice*
  • Health Status Indicators*
  • Humans
  • Internal-External Control
  • Life Style / ethnology*
  • Mass Media
  • Odds Ratio
  • Risk Factors
  • Social Class
  • Social Values / ethnology