Future Perfect? The Future of the Social Sciences in Public Health

  • Shelton R
  • Hatzenbuehler M
  • Bayer R
  • et al.
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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 trans-formative contributions to improve population health, there are significant challenges in doing so, particularly in a rapidly changing political landscape. Such challenges are both external (e.g., congressional calls for reducing social science funding) and internal (e.g., scholars criticizing the social sciences for being stagnant and siloed). This paper highlights four key tensions that the field is grappling with and that have direct implications for how to train the next generation of social scientists in public health. We also discuss how departmental and institutional decisions made in response to these tensions will determine how the social sciences in public health are ultimately recognized, sustained, and advanced. The social sciences 1 have made profound contributions to population health. While the specific theories and methods that each discipline employs vary, the value of the social sciences relates in part to their common focus on identifying and addressing persistent social realities and inequalities, and shared interest in advancing understanding of social forces that shape population health. The contributions of social science research to population health include (but are certainly not limited to): the health consequences of stigma, prejudice, and discrimination (1, 2); the impact of socioeconomic position (3), stress (4), social networks (5), social support (6), and place (7) in shaping health and health inequalities; the role of policy, power, and politics in structuring the health of populations (8-10); and the consideration of social context in the development and implementation of multilevel interventions that improve population health (11-13). While there are many opportunities for the social sciences to continue making transformative contributions to improve population health, there are also significant challenges to sustaining and expanding these contributions. Challenges come from both within and outside the academy. External challenges include recent congressional calls for significantly reducing, even eliminating, funding for the social sciences, potentially due to perceptions that the social sciences are too "soft" and too "liberal" (14). These threats are fueled, in part, by a growing anti-science, anti-expertise discourse in certain segments of the American population. There has been heightened uncertainty among social scientists about how the social sciences will be valued and funded in light of recent political changes, making this a critical time to examine its value and contribution in public health (15). 1 For the purposes of the paper, we define social sciences broadly to include multiple disciplines, including, but not limited to, history, political science, anthropology, sociology, economics, and psychology. While we acknowledge that there are differences among these disciplines, for the purposes of the paper we are less interested in those distinctions than in conceptualizing the social sciences in contrast to other approaches (e.g., biomedical approaches).




Shelton, R. C., Hatzenbuehler, M. L., Bayer, R., & Metsch, L. R. (2018). Future Perfect? The Future of the Social Sciences in Public Health. Frontiers in Public Health, 5. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpubh.2017.00357

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