Dew, Kevin. The Cult and Science of Public Health: A Sociological Investigation. New York: Berghahn, 2012. vii +179 pages. Hardcover, $70.00.
The concept of public health continues an emergence that traces its roots to at least the mid-nineteenth century. The old public health that dates from that time, as defined in this book by sociologist Kevin Dew, focused on protection and disease prevention. The founding stories of this earlier perspective include the well-known events stemming from the 1854 London cholera epidemic. In that outbreak, Dr. John Snow traced a pattern of infection to a water pump on Broad Street. By closing that pump, infection was stemmed. Another founding story involved an ethnographic study in Prussia by Rudolf Virchow that linked a typhoid epidemic with a wide range of socio-economic features of a population of miners. These two foundational stories are offered as illustrations of models that in the first example regards the problem of public health as exceptional. The second example, which is foundational for the new public health, regards the problem as social structural.
The term social epidemiology was first used in an article in American Sociological Review in 1950. Since then, social science has developed a variety of perspectives on the life of disease in human society, including theories that are materialist, psychosocial, and eco-social. The materialist lens focuses on inequalities caused by unequal access to resources, and identifies unhindered free-market capitalism as the cause of poverty and its associated morbidity and mortality. Colonialism and the forced displacement of indigenous peoples by colonizers are among the flagrant manifestations of materialist causes of disease. The psychosocial perspective identifies stress of social change as agency of disease propagation, and relative to the materialist view, the development of extreme forms of hierarchy as a major stress producer. The eco-social frame of reference includes data made visible through materialist and psychosocial views, and seeks to expand models to include the cellular to the ecosystem levels.
The present volume turns to a sociological framework in which to model, explain, and predict where public health has been and is headed. Dew turns to Emile Durkheim's concept of the cult of humanity as an organizing principle for our understanding of public health. Durkheim's use of the term cult differs from recent popular uses. It is closer in...