In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Social Epidemiology

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Methods and Causal Thinking
  • Seminal Writings for the Development of the Field
  • Health Inequalities and the Social Determinants of Health
  • Life Course Epidemiology
  • Policy Implications

Sociology Social Epidemiology
Amélie Quesnel-Vallée
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0126


Social epidemiology is a subdiscipline of epidemiology that focuses on social factors as determinants of a broad range of health and disease manifestations. Studies in this field of research have documented and, increasingly, seek to understand, how social stratification is associated with unequal health outcomes. Levels of analysis range from the ecological or population-level associations to individual-level assessments of the embodiment of social position as health outcomes. The primary axes of stratification that have been studied in this context include notably gender, race/ethnicity, and socioeconomic class and position. The conceptual roots of this area of research draw heavily from the more general epidemiological concepts of the population health perspective and of generalized susceptibility (see Seminal Writings for the Development of the Field). There are obvious areas of convergence of this field with other sociological subdisciplines, notably medical sociology, social demography, and stratification research. However, a major distinction with these subdisciplines is that social epidemiology is concerned primarily with the etiology of health and disease. As such, social factors are viewed as an input into the health function (what explains the phenomenon), in contrast with the sociological enquiry that ultimately seeks to illuminate social processes (in which case, understanding the social production of health is a means to an end, not necessarily the end of the enquiry). With such a wide-ranging field of study, and given overlaps with other areas in both sociology and epidemiology, choices had to be made in the material presented here. For instance, though the boundaries are sometimes blurry between social epidemiology and some areas of psychiatric or psychosocial epidemiology, a specific section on these topics was not included here; however, a number of the texts cited in this bibliography would also belong to those subdisciplines. Similarly, a disease-specific approach was eschewed here in favor of an approach focused on the general mechanisms highlighted in this field of research. In terms of organization of the material, the bibliography proceeds from the most general and seminal works to a more focused assessment of the impact of specific determinants of health. The focus then broadens again to present explanatory frameworks (the life course and embodiment), and ends with the policy implications of this research.

General Overviews

According to the glossary in Krieger 2001, the term Social epidemiology was first coined in 1950. However, the questions of interest to this field of research have much deeper, older roots. Adler and Stewart 2010 provides a comprehensive overview of this history, from the 19th century to contemporary research. House 2002 and Kaplan 2004, in turn, focus on more recent developments in the field, from the second half of the 20th century onward. Many works cited here (e.g., Adler and Stewart 2010, Berkman 2004, House 2002, Kaplan 2004, Harper and Strumpf 2012) offer a critical perspective and bring up epistemological and/or methodological questions and challenges. These perspectives can be useful for graduate students seeking to establish where the “next frontier” might be. Two textbooks are also listed, namely Bartley 2004 and Berkman and Kawachi 2000.

  • Adler, Nancy E., and Judith Stewart. 2010. Health disparities across the lifespan: Meaning, methods, and mechanisms. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1186.1: 5–23.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.05337.x

    An introduction to a volume of the Annals titled The Biology of Disadvantage, this provides a comprehensive historical overview of the field of social epidemiology. Contemporary challenges for the next generation of research are outlined.

  • Bartley, Mel. 2004. Health inequality: An introduction to, theories, concepts, and methods. 1st ed. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

    An excellent introductory survey textbook. Covers both methodological rudiments and conceptual issues, with an emphasis on data from the United Kingdom. Approachable enough to be used as a textbook in an undergraduate class. Relative to Berkman and Kawachi 2000, offers a broader disciplinary perspective not limited to social epidemiology.

  • Berkman, Lisa F. 2004. Introduction: Seeing the forest and the trees: From observation to experiments in social epidemiology. Epidemiologic Reviews 26.1: 2–6.

    DOI: 10.1093/epirev/mxh012

    An introduction to an issue of Epidemiologic Reviews on social epidemiology with important insights about counterfactual hypotheses (also see Methods and Causal Thinking) and the role of experimental studies in this field.

  • Berkman, Lisa F., and Ichiro Kawachi. 2000. Social epidemiology. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This edited volume features sixteen chapters by eminent scholars in the field. Could be used as a graduate textbook on this topic. In comparison with Bartley 2004, covers a greater breadth of social epidemiology, but at the cost of less integration of the material.

  • Harper, Sam, and Erin C. Strumpf. 2012. Social epidemiology: Questionable answers and answerable questions. Epidemiology 23.6: 795–798.

    DOI: 10.1097/EDE.0b013e31826d078d

    This introduction to a special issue on social epidemiology takes the topics raised in Berkman 2004 concerning causal inference, counterfactual thinking, and experimental studies a step further (also see Methods and Causal Thinking).

  • House, James S. 2002. Understanding social factors and inequalities in health: 20th century progress and 21st century prospects. Journal of Health and Social Behavior 43.2: 125–142.

    DOI: 10.2307/3090192

    In this address for the Leo Reeder Award of the Medical Sociology section of the American Sociological Association, House draws connections between risk-factor epidemiology and social concepts drawn primarily from sociology (socioeconomic position and race/ethnicity).

  • Kaplan, George A. 2004. What’s wrong with social epidemiology, and how can we make it better? Epidemiologic Reviews 26.1: 124–135.

    DOI: 10.1093/epirev/mxh010

    A thoughtful and incisive critical perspective on the limitations of the field, with a constructive emphasis on areas that could be improved.

  • Krieger, N. 2001. A glossary for social epidemiology. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 55.10: 693–700.

    DOI: 10.1136/jech.55.10.693

    A regular feature of the “Continuing professional education” section of the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, glossaries provide a succinct thematic overview of important concepts, along with their definitions. See also Kuh, et al. 2003 (cited under Life Course Epidemiology) and Krieger 2005 (cited under Embodiment) for other glossaries in this bibliography.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.