Health & Society Program Overview

The challenge for the Health and Society Program is to advance understanding of the social, economic, psychological, and behavioral determinants of health, with a special focus on social and economic disparities in health in the United States and across the developing world. Biological and genetic processes that may interact with or mediate the effects of social and psychological factors on health and fitness are also of research interest in the Program. The complexity of the health domain requires a commitment to interdisciplinary, collaborative inquiry, and current members of the Program represent training in the disciplines of economics, sociology, demography, psychology, pediatrics, and behavioral genetics.

The domain of health has taken on a special urgency in the contemporary world due to: long-range demographic changes such as population aging in the developed world and bulging cohorts of young people in the developing world; the emergence or re-emergence of intractable diseases such as AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, and diabetes, and the double burden in the developing world of both infectious and, increasingly, chronic disease; a growing awareness of the limitations of the medical model in accounting for variation in health both within and across population groups; the exploding cost of medical care and treatment in contemporary society; the recognition that health promotion and disease prevention have a far more favorable cost/benefit ratio than does treatment and care; and more.

Patterns of morbidity and mortality at the beginning of the 21st century are different from those of earlier times when much of the burden of illness was due to infectious disease. Contemporary patterns of illness can be traced in large measure to behavior and to the social context in which it is embedded, whether that behavior entails an unhealthy diet, or a sedentary lifestyle, or drunken driving, or alcohol and tobacco use, or stressfull daily living. Understanding variation in behavior thus becomes a focal concern in understanding variation in health. And, from a behavioral science perspective, understanding variation in behavior requires a grasp of the economic, social, and psychological factors that shape its likelihood of occurrence.

Finally, there is a commitment in the Program to evaluation research on prevention/intervention efforts seeking to promote healthy development or to forestall the development of illness, disease, or premature mortality.