This is the eighth in a series of posts which I have written alongside a module I will be teaching which is intended to help non-sociology students to gain an understanding of the sociology of health and illness. While these posts are primarily intended for that audience and are therefore intentionally introductory there might be something of interest to a more general audience. For that reason I have decided to put them on my blog in amongst more specific and specialist writings.

As with gender, which I explored in my previous post, the connection between ethnicity and health is perhaps best understood in relation to structural factors (such as the intersection between ethnicity, income and health inequalities) and cultural factors. As I focused on structural factors when discussing gender I will focus on cultural issues here.

First, it is necessary to establish the broad sociological approach to ethnicity which can be summarised like this (also see here for a discussion of this distinction):

Race – biological differences which have been deemed to be socially significant

Ethnicity – cultural practices and values which distinguish groups

Much of the sociology of race and ethnicity is based on a fundamental critique of “essentialism” which refers to a set of beliefs which conflate race and ethnicity.

While some ethnic minority groups are more likely to experience low incomes, low educational attainment and poorer health outcomes as well as other problems it is a crucial insight of sociology of ethnicity that these problems are the result of social factors rather than deficiencies in people due to their race or ethnicity. Although we must be careful not to essentialise ethnic differences it is also important to understand cultural differences between groups and how these impact on health outcomes.

In order to conceptualise the relationship between ethnicity and health it is necessary to better understand how health behaviours are ‘largely routinised feature of everyday life which [are] guided by practical or implicit logic’ (Williams, 1995: 583). What this means is that many of the thing do without realising why. We eat chocolate at the cinema because that is what we always do. We have a bacon sandwich on a Sunday morning because it just feels right. But these kinds of cultural practices are different for different groups of people. While there are many groups in society who have different practices ethnicity has a particularly strong relationship with certain ways of doing things.

One of the implications of this is that public health messages may be “read” differently by different groups and the goals and aspirations of those groups may not be aligned with those that are implicit in public health campaigns. Similarly connections can also be made between cultures associated with ethnic groups and the ways in which people interpret the causation of their conditions. A British study by Lawton et al (2007) looked at the “illness narratives” of people with diabetes and found that people from a South Asian background tended to attribute their condition to “external factor. These included:

  • Exposure to British culture
  • “Severed social networks”
  • Lack of control

In short, South Asian people tended to explain their condition through their position in society, relative to others. Alternatively, White people tended to emphasise “individual factors” such

  • Lifestyle
  • Individual responsibility
  • Guilt

This second group tended to understand their situation as being their own fault as did those in the study by Peacock, Bissell and Owen which I have previously discussed.

The core lesson that can be derived from a sociological analysis of ethnicity is one that can also be applied to any social group, that a person’s health condition should be interpreted in relation to the broader context of their lives and their social networks.

In the next, and final, post in this series I will offer some reflections on all of the issues covered and the teaching of this module.

Lawton, J., Ahmand, N., Peel, E. and Hallowell, N. (2007) ‘Contextualising accounts of illness: notions of responsibility and blame in white and South Asian respondents’ accounts of diabetes causation’ Sociology of Health & Illness 29(6): 891-906.

Williams, S. J. (1995) ‘Theorising Class, Health and Lifestyles: can Bourdieu help us?’ Sociology of Health & Illness 17(5): 577-604.