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A pluralistic and socially responsible philosophy of epidemiology field should actively engage with social determinants of health and health disparities

  • Sean A. VallesEmail author
S.I. : Philosophy of Epidemiology


Philosophy of epidemiology has recently emerged as a distinct branch of philosophy. The field will surely benefit from pluralism, reflected in the broad range of topics and perspectives in this special issue. Here, I argue that a healthy pluralistic field of philosophy of epidemiology has social responsibilities that require the field as a whole (not any individual work therein) to engage actively with research on social determinants of health and health disparities. Practicing epidemiologists and the broader community of public health scientists have gradually acknowledged that much of their attention ought to be paid to these, i.e. inequitable between-population health variations that largely reflect the world’s inequitable distribution of resources and social conditions. The paper illustrates how and why health disparities and social determinants of health, through no ill will, become de facto secondary concerns in Alex Broadbent’s field-defining Philosophy of Epidemiology, showing the ease with which these topics can be incidentally sidelined. As means for philosophy of epidemiology to meet its social responsibility obligations, I suggest philosophy of epidemiology expand its attention to two particular lines research. First, the paper discusses Geoffrey Rose’s concept of “causes of incidence”—causes of disparities between populations—and argues for the importance of engaging with these causes. Second, the paper argues for the value of engaging with Bruce Link and Jo Phelan’s “fundamental causes” model of how flexible social resources (money, prestige, etc.) serve as buffers from harms, generating a plethora of shifting and locally-contingent health effects.


Causes of incidence Fundamental cause Philosophy of epidemiology Population health Social determinants of health 



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© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Lyman Briggs CollegeMichigan State UniversityEast LansingUSA
  2. 2.Department of PhilosophyMichigan State UniversityEast LansingUSA

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