The Center on Health, Risk and Society seeks to build an interdisciplinary community of scholars at American University interested in conducting research on the social dimensions of health and health-related risks, especially on their roots in social inequality, and on structural interventions aimed at addressing them. It will provide a range of resources in support of the development of externally funded research in these areas, both within the United States and globally.
The emphasis on the social dimensions of health and risk and on structural interventions is built on growing recognition that more traditional approaches to health such as those that focus on individual choices and behaviors, and the health education interventions that derive from them, or those that focus on biomedical technologies, such as medicines, vaccines, or clinical practices, have had partial and limited effects that can be difficult to maintain, and that may not reach those in greatest need. Indeed, in some instances, reductions in the overall level of a health problem are accompanied by greater inequality in the distribution of its burden, suggesting that attention to social inequality may lead to a distinct health research agenda.
Typically, research centers focused on health are located at institutions with medical or public health schools. Even when these centers strive for interdisciplinarity, basic and clinical science perspectives often dominate with the social and behavioral sciences primarily represented by behavioral approaches typical of psychology. As important as these perspectives are, there is a real need to build a sophisticated understanding of health and risk as social phenomena (defined broadly to include sociological, political, economic, cultural, and legal dimensions). This can be done by bringing together a critical mass of scholars from different disciplines to collaborate with one another in the development of health research.
American University, and the Center on Health, Risk and Society, are well situated to take on these challenges. Scholars from the social sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences bring with them sophisticated theoretical frameworks for understanding the social and cultural dimensions of relationships, institutions, and systems, which can in turn be applied to understanding health and risk. Often, such insights imply interventions targeted at levels beyond the individual, including in the legal and policy domains, and/or require understanding issues of politics, governance, and citizenship, typically the expertise of political science, public policy and law. Further, to be complete, any social analysis of health must locate it globally, acknowledging the fundamental interconnectedness of health and development, and avoiding the uncritical imposition of western values and priorities in global south settings. Thus, to reach its full potential, the Center will work to facilitate research collaborations across departments and schools at the University.