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Is Public Health a Social Science?

June 17, 2020
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To determine if public health has a place in the social sciences, we should first clarify what constitutes a social science. From there, we can easily see whether one discipline fits within the other, and we’ll have our answer. Nice and simple.

Or so we might think. The study of social science has changed over time, as have the titles and definitions applied to it. Different people and organizations define the term in diverse ways—so even if we could pin down one group’s most up-to-date idea of the science, other experts are likely to disagree with it.

Keep reading for a discussion of public health’s place in and relationship to the social sciences.

VARIED DEFINITIONS OF SOCIAL SCIENCE

An initial web search for, “What is social science?” yields immediately confusing results: Some schools of thought acknowledge five social sciences, while others include seven. In an article for Encyclopedia Britannica, Robert A. Nisbet sets out these parameters, which can expand the field to nine:

“The social sciences include cultural (or social) anthropology, sociology, social psychology, political science, and economics. Also frequently included are social and economic geography and those areas of education that deal with the social contexts of learning and the relation of the school to the social order. ... Historiography is regarded by many as a social science. ... The study of comparative law may also be regarded as a part of the social sciences.” 1

The website Science Daily offers a similarly large field, with different guidelines:

“Social science is an academic discipline concerned with society and the relationships among individuals within a society, which often rely primarily on empirical approaches. It includes anthropology, economics, political science, psychology and sociology. In a wider sense, it may often include some fields in the humanities such as archaeology, history, law, and linguistics.”2

The Economic and Social Research Council also notes nine disciplines of social science, which collectively include several more:

  • “Demography and social statistics, methods and computing
  • Development studies, human geography and environmental planning
  • Economics, management and business studies
  • Education, social anthropology and linguistics
  • Law, economic and social history
  • Politics and international relations
  • Psychology and sociology
  • Science and technology studies
  • Social policy and social work”3

Not one of these lists includes public health. From this sample, it seems that the general wisdom doesn’t regard matters of public health in the study or pursuit of the social sciences.

CHANGE AND INCLUSION IN AN EVOLVING FIELD

The very idea of social sciences has changed a great deal over the centuries. The study of people and our behavior has been part of human inquiry through the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the rise and fall of monarchies and religious doctrines, revolutions in government and industry, and the dramatic sociotechnological developments of the last two centuries.

Nisbet mentions that, although the social sciences, as recognized disciplines of thought, go back no further than the 1800s, their fundamental ideas and goals have roots with the ancient Greeks “and their rationalist inquiries into human nature, the state, and morality.”4

As societies change and ideas evolve, so do the names we use for them. As recently as the 1950s, the term “behavioral sciences” was often applied to the disciplines now designated as the social sciences.

This ongoing change may be the one constant we can rely on. As with the Olympic games, which also date back to the ancient Greeks, evolution in the field of social science may require new inclusions. We could argue that public health has an intrinsic place in this continuously developing field.

AN IMPOSSIBLE EXCLUSION AND AN ESSENTIAL PARTNERSHIP

Leaders in diverse disciplines, from Cole Porter to Augusten Burroughs and beyond, have emphasized the essential importance of good health. USC physician and author David B. Agus summarized the thought: “Without your health, you have nothing.”5 Each of us only needs to recall our last miserable cold—if not more serious ailments and injuries—to relive how our health immediately affects our choices, actions, and impact on those around us. When an issue is so central to a single person’s priorities and behavior, and when that experience is common to us all, how can we not consider it in the study of society as a whole?

If we agree with Robert A. Nisbet that, even after centuries of change, social science is “any discipline or branch of science that deals with human behaviour in its social and cultural aspects,”6 we’re obliged to include public health under that umbrella.

A 2018 article in the journal Frontiers in Public Health began, “This is a critical and perhaps unprecedented time for the social sciences in public health. While there are many opportunities for the social sciences to continue making transformative contributions to improve population health, there are significant challenges in doing so.”7

Acknowledging that the theories and methods employed by the social science disciplines vary, the article’s authors laud their common focus: identifying and addressing persistent social realities and inequalities, and a shared interest in advancing understanding of social forces that shape population health.

Among the many contributions of social science research to population health, they highlight these:

  • The health consequences of stigma, prejudice, and discrimination
  • The impact of socioeconomic position, stress, social networks, social support, and place in shaping health and health inequalities
  • The role of policy, power and politics in structuring the health of populations
  • The consideration of social context in the development and implementation of multilevel interventions that improve population health

Consideration of these contributions and value to society are especially timely, they note, as the American political climate leaves social scientists questioning how their work will be valued and funded in the days ahead. A growing anti-science, anti-expertise discourse has spurred congressional calls to cut or even eliminate funding for the social sciences, accompanied by perceptions that they’re too “soft” and too “liberal.” The article goes on to state that this devaluing is also demonstrated by the large investments being made in biomedicine (e.g., precision medicine, clinical healthcare) over population health.
Threats to the field come from within it, as well. In a 2013 New York Times OpEd that caught widespread attention, for example, Yale physician and sociologist Nicholas Christakis claimed that the lack of change in social science departments and disciplines is “counterproductive, constraining engagement with the scientific cutting edge and stifling the creation of new and useful knowledge.” Failure to alter the “basic DNA of the social sciences” might, he said, “result in having the natural sciences co-opt topics rightly and beneficially in the purview of the social sciences.”

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1 Retrieved on 5/26/20 from britannica.com/topic/social-science2 Retrieved on 5/26/20 from sciencedaily.com/terms/social_science.htm3 Retrieved on 5/26/20 from esrc.ukri.org/about-us/what-is-social-science/social-science-disciplines/4 Retrieved on 5/26/20 from britannica.com/topic/social-science5 Agus, David B. The End of Illness. New York: Free Press, 2011.6 Retrieved on 5/26/20 from britannica.com/topic/social-science7 Retrieved on 5/26/20 from frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpubh.2017.00357/full