Flanked by Two Dolphins


An ecosocial theory of disease

The correlation between health, income, and wealth is widely recognized in contemporary research and policy circles. This broadly social understanding of public health outcomes has its origins in a theoretical tradition dating back to the 1970s and 80s, in which scholars began to embed medical research within a political and economic framework.

In a 2001 paper, epidemiologist NANCY KRIEGER seeks to strengthen the theoretical foundations of epidemiological research by linking them back to biological study.

From the paper:

“If social epidemiologists are to gain clarity on causes of and barriers to reducing social inequalities in health, adequate theory is a necessity. Grappling with notions of causation raises issues of accountability and agency: simply invoking abstract notions like ‘society’ and disembodied ‘genes’ will not suffice. Instead, the central question becomes who and what is responsible for population patterns of health, disease, and well-being, as manifested in present, past and changing social inequalities in health?

Arising in part as a critique of proliferating theories that emphasize individuals’ responsibility to choose healthy lifestyles, the political economy of health school explicitly addresses economic and political determinants of health and disease, including structural barriers to people living healthy lives. Yet, despite its invaluable contributions to identifying social determinants of population health, a political economy of health perspective affords few principles for investigating what these determinants are determining. I propose a theory that conceptualizes changing population patterns of health, disease and well-being in relation to each level of biological, ecological and social organization (e.g. cell, organ, organism/ individual, family, community, population, society, ecosystem). Unlike prior causal frameworks—whether of a triangle connecting ‘host’, ‘agent’ and ‘environment’, or a ‘chain of causes’ arrayed along a scale of biological organization, from ‘society’ to ‘molecular and submolecular particles’—this framework is multidimensional and dynamic and allows us to elucidate population patterns of health, disease and well-being as biological expressions of social relations—potentially generating new knowledge and new grounds for action.”

Link to the piece.

  • Krieger’s 1994 article takes a closer look at epidemiological causal frameworks, questioning the adequacy of multiple causation. And her 2012 paper asks: “Who or what is a population?” and articulates the analytical significance of this definition for epidemiological research. Link and link.
  • “Disease epidemics are as much markers of modern civilization as they are threats to it.” In NLR, Rob and Rodrick Wallace consider how the development of the global economy has altered the spread of epidemics, taking the 2014 Ebola outbreak as a case study. Link.
  • Samuel S. Myers and Jonathan A. Patz argue that climate change constitutes the “greatest public health challenge humanity has faced.” Link.
  • A history of epidemics in the Roman Empire, from 27 BC – 476 AD, by Francois Relief and Louise Cilliers. Link. And a 1987 book by Ann Bowman Jannetta analyzes the impact of disease on institutional development in early modern Japan. Link.


The industry wage premium of STEM composition in India

In a 2019 paper, NYU Sociology PhD candidate BHUMIKA CHAUHAN explores how differences in labor composition contribute to inter-industry wage differentials.

From the abstract:

“Research on inter-industry wage differentials offers explanations ranging from ‘unobserved labor quality’, capital intensity, uneven technology change, and profitability to efficiency wages, discrimination and unionization. However, an aspect that remains under-explored is differences in labor composition, specifically STEM composition, that could contribute to productivity and generate positive returns to working in hi-tech industries independently of the role played by physical capital or embodied technology. This study empirically demonstrates the importance of STEM composition using a dataset from India constructed by merging individual-level data from the National Sample Survey with industry-level data from CMIE’s Prowessdx. It shows that workers in industries with a high proportion of STEM workers earn an industry-specific wage premium irrespective of their own individual characteristics, and despite controlling for industry-level capital intensity and profitability. However, the analysis also suggests that this positive STEM composition effect might depend on the bargaining power of workers.”

Link to the paper.

Each week we highlight great work from a graduate student, postdoc, or early-career professor. Have you read any excellent research recently that you’d like to see shared here? Send it our way: editorial@jainfamilyinstitute.org.

+ + +

  • The latest installment of our Phenomenal Works series comes from economist Nathan Lane, a researcher to watch whose work we’ve featured previously. “As contemporary trade and development economists, we tend to be very much ‘in the weeds,’ and often take for granted this recent period of development. Intellectual and global histories have been inspirational for helping me grasp the complexity of the last century.” Link to the post.
  • A correction from last week’s letter: we mistakenly included a repeat link to Theda Skocpol’s excellent report on cap and trade, where there should’ve been a link to Nancy Cartwright and Jacob Stegenga’s essay theorizing evidence for evidence-based policy. Link to Cartwright and Stegenga’s paper.
  • A collaborative project tracking the novel coronavirus outbreak using public data. Link.
  • “New problems now challenge the content of our introductory economics courses: mounting inequalities, climate change, concerns about the future of work, and financial instability. The tools required to address these problems (strategic interaction, limited information, principal-agent models, new behavioral foundations, and dynamic processes) are available.” Samuel Bowles and Wendy Carlin call for a re-writing of contemporary economics education. Link.
  • Josh Angrist et al look at “extramural citations” between economics and the other social sciences: citations to empirical work have increased in non-economic social sciences, and economists are increasingly citing other social sciences at increasing rates. Link.
  • From the Asian Journal of Comparative Politics, a special issue analyzing recent elections results in India, Japan, Thailand, the Philippines, and Australia. Link.
  • In the Cambridge Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, historian Gabriel Winant gives a critical overview of analogies drawn between the “gilded age” and our own. Link.
  • At EPI, new analysis from Josh Bivens finds that a guaranteed health care program is likely to “boost wages and jobs and lead to more efficient labor markets.” Link.
  • In a new article, Julian Gewirtz examines the “how the Chinese Communist Party interpreted HIV/AIDS in the period from 1984, when the Chinese government first introduced policies reacting to the disease’s emergence, to 2000, when China’s devastating epidemic began to receive worldwide media attention.” Link.
  • At the Times, David Leondhart and Stuart Thompson report on and visualize the growth of deaths of despair in the United States. Link.
  • In honor of the book’s 75th anniversary, Fred Block and Margaret Somers reflect on the legacy of Karl Polanyi’s Great Transformation. Link.
  • A methods paper by Susan Athey, Raj Chetty, Guido Imbens, Hyunseung Kang: “A common challenge in estimating the long-term impacts of treatments (e.g., job training programs) is that the outcomes of interest (e.g., lifetime earnings) are observed with a long delay. We address this problem by combining several short term outcomes (e.g., short-run earnings) into a ‘surrogate index,’ the predicted value of the long-term outcome given the short-term outcomes.” Link. h/t Sidhya
  • A January Oxfam report estimates that women and girls globally perform about $10.9 trillion worth of unpaid labor. Link to the report, and link to an informative data visualization in the NYT.
  • AI as central banker? Jon Danielsson et al look at the increased use of AI systems in central banks. Link.
  • “We document that the spread of the Mafia in Sicily at the end of the 19th century was in part caused by the rise of socialist Peasant Fasci organizations. In an environment with weak state presence, this socialist threat triggered landowners, estate managers and local politicians to turn to the Mafia to resist and combat peasant demands. We show that the location of the Peasant Fasci is significantly affected by a severe drought in 1893, and using information on rainfall, we estimate the impact of the Peasant Fasci on the location of the Mafia in 1900.” By Daron Acemoglu, Giuseppe De Feo, and Giacomo De Luca. Link.

Each week we highlight research from a graduate student, postdoc, or early-career professor. Send us recommendations: editorial@jainfamilyinstitute.org.

Subscribe to PW Sources