—from Epidemiological Bulletin, Vol. 23 No. 1, March 2002

Introduction to Social Epidemiology

The study of social conditions and how these influence and determine the health situation of populations has always been a subject of interest and importance for public health in general. In recent years, a stronger tie between epidemiology and the social sciences has been forged,(1) promoted by the need to recognize and document the wide spectrum of health determinants, from a micro level where individual biological factors operate, to a macro level that expresses social conditions in which populations live. This endeavor has given birth to so-called “social epidemiology.”

The principal concern of social epidemiology is the study of how society and different forms of social organization influence the health and well-being of individuals and populations. In particular, it studies the frequency, distribution, and social determinants of the states of health in a population. Thus, social epidemiology goes beyond the analysis of individual risk factors to include the study of the social context in which the health-disease phenomenon occurs.(2)

In order to explain the path between exposure to social characteristics of the environment and its effects on public health, social epidemiology enriches the traditional epidemiological approach with concepts and techniques from social disciplines such as economics, sociology and demography ,as well as biology. This fusion of techniques from different fields creates a methodological challenge. Examples of development in this field include the growing use of methods of multi-level analysis in ecological design, control of the ecological fallacy and the use of new applications of already known tools and techniques.

A constant and current concern in the global sanitary landscape is the presence of inequalities — particularly social inequalities — in health. Social epidemiology makes it possible to incorporate the social experience of populations in the traditional etiological approach to public health and, as a result, permits a better understanding of how, where and why inequalities affect health. In this regard, social epidemiology can contribute significantly to the health management process and the reduction of inequities in health.

As an introduction to this branch of epidemiology, we provide the readers of the Epidemiological Bulletin with an overview of its vocabulary, taking advantage of the Glossary of Social Epidemiology prepared by Dr. Nancy Krieger of the Harvard University School of Public Health. This glossary was recently published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, which kindly authorized its translation and reproduction in the Bulletin. It will be published in two parts. The second part will be included in the June 2002 issue of the Bulletin.

 

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Epidemiological Bulletin, Vol. 23 No. 1, March 2002