Academic journal article New Zealand Sociology

The Cult and Science of Public Health: A Sociological Investigation

Academic journal article New Zealand Sociology

The Cult and Science of Public Health: A Sociological Investigation

Article excerpt

Author Meets Critic Panel, Sociological Association of Aotearoa New Zealand SAANZ Conference 2013 (University of Auckland): Kevin Dew's (2012) The Cult and Science of Public Health: A Sociological Investigation (Oxford, Berghahn Books).

Publisher's Description

In contemporary manifestations of public health rituals and events, people are bemg increasingly united around what they hold in common-their material being and humanity. As a cult of humanity, public health provides a moral force in society that replaces 'traditional' religions in times of great diversity or heterogeneity of peoples, activities and desires. This is in contrast to public health's foundation in science, particularly the science of epidemiology. The rigid rules of 'scientific evidence' used to determine the cause of illness and disease can work against the most vulnerable in society by putting sectors of the population, such as underrepresented workers, at a disadvantage. This study focuses on this tension between traditional science and the changing vision articulated within public health (and across many disciplines) that calls for a collective response to uncontrolled capitalism and unremitting globalization, and to the way in which health inequalities and their association with social inequalities provides a political rhetoric that calls for a new redistributive social programme. Drawing on decades of research, the author argues that public health is both a cult and a science of contemporary society.


Chapter 1. Public health theories and theorising public health

Chapter 2. Myths, morality and modem public health

Chapter 3. The politics of public health

Chapter 4. Health promotion settings and health hostile environments

Chapter 5. Public health and health professionals

Chapter 6. The political use of public health

Chapter 7. Public health campaigns

Chapter 8. The cult of health and its rituals

Geoff Fougere

This is a deeply interesting book - an appreciation but also a critical dissection of public health. It is written by someone who is pre-eminently a sociologist but who is also familiar with the practices of public health, both as a long term member of a university Department of Public Health and as a researcher exploring the effects of these practices across diverse settings.

The book opens up the complexity of public health as a 'collective response to threats against peoples' health'. That complexity includes the layering of the 'old' public health, with its focus on sanitation and the prevention of communicable disease, on the 'new' public health, with its focus on chronic disease and concerns with health promotion (with the social determinants of health running as a thread between the two), the array of academic disciplines drawn on by public health and its manifold and ambivalent links to the state and to market capitalism. If public health is, in the book's framing, an 'institution', it can also be seen as a promiscuous assemblage, constantly combining and recombining different forms of knowledge production and social, economic and political linkages with interventions operating at every scale from the face to face to the global.

The approach the book takes is not to eschew this complexity but to run with it: to follow public health practices into many of the locales in which they have effects, across historical time as well as geographical space. The result is to check and constrain both public health's self-understanding of its enterprise and the framing of public health by dominant theoretical currents within sociology. Public health is not simply about the, 'discovery of scientific principles and commitment to individual wellbeing' - a view that elides its complex and ambivalent ties with market capitalism and the state. And while sometimes public health provides a handmaiden to exploitative forms of capitalism as in Marxist accounts or acts as a powerful disciplinary force, joining surveillance and control with the 'responsibilisation' of individual subjects as in Foucauldian approaches, the framing that the book develops is different. …

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