Sociology of health and illness


This course provides a sociological analysis of population health.  The course surveys social determinants of health and links theoretical work (e.g. fundamental cause theory, material, psychosocial, or biomedical explanations) to empirical analyses of health, focusing on recent controversies in the field and on the potential of policy interventions to improve population health.


Course outline

  1. Definition and measurement of health.  What do we mean when we talk about health and how can or should it be measured?

Social determinants of health.  We survey potential social determinants of health at the micro (e.g. socio-economic status, health behaviors), meso (e.g. social networks), and the macro-level (e.g. political economy).

  1. Micro-level determinants of health
  2. Meso-level determinants of health
  3. Macro-level determinants of health

Social determinants of health vs. health determinants of life chances.  Socioeconomic status and health are associated, but there is no consensus about the causal direction of the association.  We aim to make sense of conflicting findings and theories in a causal framework.

  1. Causation in research on social determinants of health
  2. Theories of social determinants of health I
  3. Theories of social determinants of health II

Communicable and non-communicable diseases.  In recent years, health research has focused on non-communicable diseases that afflict the aging, industrialized societies, but with COVID-19 and decreasing life expectancies in some countries, this focus is shifting again.  We discuss recent trends such as ‘deaths of despair’ or the compression of morbidity considering the global pandemic.

  1. Non-communicable diseases: aging societies, deaths of despair
  2. Communicable diseases: COVID 19
  3. Trends in global health

Social movements in health and health inequalities as a social problem.  Health is a contentious issue in the public arena, with both government and non-government actors being heavily engaged.  We will examine the anti-vaccination movement as a social movement actively shaping population health now.  Conversely, policymakers who had aimed to reduce socioeconomic inequalities in health usually struggle to achieve measurable success, which we will too discuss.

  1. Social movements in health
  2. Health inequalities as a social problem


Lutfey, Karen, and Jeremy Freese. 2005. “Toward Some Fundamentals of Fundamental Causality. Socioeconomic Status and Health in the Routine Clinic Visit for Diabetes.” American Journal of Sociology 110(5)1326–72, DOI:10.1086/428914.

Lynch, Julia. 2020. Regimes of Inequality. The Political Economy of Health and Wealth. Cambridge University Press, DOI:10.1017/9781139051576.

Mackenbach, Johan P. 2019. Health Inequalities. Persistence and Change in European Welfare States. Oxford University Press, DOI:10.1093/oso/9780198831419.001.0001.

Snyder-Mackler, Noah, et al. 2020. “Social Determinants of Health and Survival in Humans and Other Animals.” Science 368(6493)eaax9553, DOI:10.1126/science.aax9553.