Social epidemiology: Definition, history, and research examples

  • Kaori Honjo
Review Article


Social epidemiology is a branch of epidemiology that focuses particularly on the effects of social-structural factors on states of health. Social epidemiology assumes that the distribution of advantages and disadvantages in a society reflects the distribution of health and disease. It proposes to identify societal characteristics that affect the pattern of disease and health distribution in a society and to understand its mechanisms. The central and initial question of social epidemiology to be answered is what effect do social factors have on individual and population health. However, the new focus on this theme using current epidemiological methods is a relatively recent phenomenon. There are several significant concepts in the field of social epidemiology: 1) the bio-psychosocial paradigm, 2) the population perspective, 3) use of new statistical approaches such as multilevel analysis, and 4) significance of theory.

The relationship between social class and health has been a major research field since the beginning of public health history. Many studies have identified the disparities in health among social classes and developed several theories, such as social selection theory and socio-biological translation theory. However, despite the long history of this research field, the effect of social class on health is not yet fully understood.

Income distribution and health is a relatively new field within social epidemiology. Three possible mechanisms for the consequences of income distribution on health are 1) disinvestment of human capital, 2) disinvestment of social capital, and 3) psychological process. Refining theories of income distribution is a major challenge in research on income distribution.

Key words

society epidemiology health social class income distribution 


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Copyright information

© Japanese Society of Hygiene 2004

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Social and Environmental Life Sciences Social Medicine and Longevity Sciences, Hygiene and Preventive MedicineOkayama University Graduate School of Medicine and DentistryOkayamaJapan

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