Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics

, Volume 28, Issue 6, pp 465–485 | Cite as

The social epidemiologic concept of fundamental cause

  • Andrew Ward


The goal of research in social epidemiology is not simply conceptual clarification or theoretical understanding, but more importantly it is to contribute to, and enhance the health of populations (and so, too, the people who constitute those populations). Undoubtedly, understanding how various individual risk factors such as smoking and obesity affect the health of people does contribute to this goal. However, what is distinctive of much on-going work in social epidemiology is the view that analyses making use of individual-level variables is not enough. In the spirit of Durkheim and Weber, S. Leonard Syme makes this point by writing that just “as bad water and food may be harmful to our health, unhealthful forces in our society may be detrimental to our capacity to make choices and to form opinions” conducive to health and well-being. Advocates of upstream (distal) causes of adverse health outcomes propose to identify the most important of these “unhealthful forces” as the fundamental causes of adverse health outcomes. However, without a clear, theoretically precise and well-grounded understanding of the characteristics of fundamental causes, there is little hope in applying the statistical tools of the health sciences to hypotheses about fundamental causes, their outcomes, and policies intended to enhance the health of populations. This paper begins the process of characterizing the social epidemiological concept of fundamental cause in a theoretically respectable and robust way.


Fundamental cause Social epidemiology Causality Necessary cause Sufficient cause Social-context variable 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Health Policy and Management, School of Public HealthUniversity of MinnesotaMinneapolisUSA

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