Our argument to this point has been that the 'obesity epidemic' is much more than a 'natural phenomenon' that can adequately be described and explained by science. Instead, we argue that the 'obesity epidemic' is, as much as anything else, a social idea (or an ideology), constructed at the intersection of scientific knowledge and a complex of culturally-based beliefs, values and ideals. As such, it seems useful to explore what it is sociologists have to say about the 'obesity epidemic', to help understand why the 'obesity epidemic' has come to such prominence as a health issue in the face of considerable scientific uncertainty, and with what consequences for individuals and for society. Like the feminist work in the previous chapter, sociologists (and those working in history, cultural studies and so on) provide alternative ways of talking and thinking about overweight and obesity from those offered by the sciences and the popular media. Perhaps most importantly, they provide an understanding of the 'obesity epidemic' as a social and cultural phenomenon, rather than as one explained in terms of population trends or individual behaviours.
Most contemporary sociologists would argue that an important role of sociology is to demonstrate that there is no one way of seeing and knowing the world. They would argue that sociological work (and the work now done under the rubric of cultural studies) should be concerned with identifying how some ways of seeing and talking about the world become taken for granted as 'truths' or the only ways of seeing and knowing, and others are made invisible or silenced. They point out that this is not the case because the dominant or most popular ways of seeing are indeed 'true', but because they are associated with power. This is part of the argument that we have been developing in this book: that the historical credibility given to the sciences and the translation of their messages into popular currency in the media and 'popular science' books (see Chapter 7) provides powerful means to convince of the 'truth' of their messages about body weight and health. Part of that power is also associated with our apparent desire as a society for certainty. We seem to want, and perhaps need, certain knowledge that we can use to guide our actions and our relationships. C. Wright Mills (2000) and others since (Berger 1967), have argued for the role of sociologists in helping to develop a 'sociological imagination': that is, bringing a lens to our everyday lives so that we question what we take for granted, the assumptions that we have about the world and how it works. This involves 'making the familiar strange' (Tinning 2004:233): recognising that knowledge is uncertain and that experts are fallible. Such an approach