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Capitals and capabilities: Linking structure and agency to reduce health inequalities

Listed author(s):
  • Abel, Thomas
  • Frohlich, Katherine L.
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    While empirical evidence continues to show that low socio-economic position is associated with less likely chances of being in good health, our understanding of why this is so remains less than clear. In this paper we examine the theoretical foundations for a structure–agency approach to the reduction of social inequalities in health. We use Max Weber’s work on lifestyles to provide the explanation for the dualism between life chances (structure) and choice-based life conduct (agency). For explaining how the unequal distribution of material and non-material resources leads to the reproduction of unequal life chances and limitations of choice in contemporary societies, we apply Pierre Bourdieu’s theory on capital interaction and habitus. We find, however, that Bourdieu’s habitus concept is insufficient with regard to the role of agency for structural change and therefore does not readily provide for a theoretically supported move from sociological explanation to public health action. We therefore suggest Amartya Sen’s capability approach as a useful link between capital interaction theory and action to reduce social inequalities in health. This link allows for the consideration of structural conditions as well as an active role for individuals as agents in reducing these inequalities. We suggest that people’s capabilities to be active for their health be considered as a key concept in public health practice to reduce health inequalities. Examples provided from an ongoing health promotion project in Germany link our theoretical perspective to a practical experience.

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    Article provided by Elsevier in its journal Social Science & Medicine.

    Volume (Year): 74 (2012)
    Issue (Month): 2 ()
    Pages: 236-244

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    Handle: RePEc:eee:socmed:v:74:y:2012:i:2:p:236-244
    DOI: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2011.10.028
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    1. Frohlich, Katherine L. & Potvin, Louise & Chabot, Patrick & Corin, Ellen, 2002. "A theoretical and empirical analysis of context: : neighbourhoods, smoking and youth," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 54(9), pages 1401-1417, May.
    2. Ingrid Robeyns, 2005. "The Capability Approach: a theoretical survey," Journal of Human Development and Capabilities, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 6(1), pages 93-117.
    3. Frances Stewart, 2005. "Groups and Capabilities," Journal of Human Development and Capabilities, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 6(2), pages 185-204.
    4. Marmot, Michael & Allen, Jessica & Goldblatt, Peter, 2010. "A social movement, based on evidence, to reduce inequalities in health," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 71(7), pages 1254-1258, October.
    5. Abel, Thomas, 1991. "Measuring health lifestyles in a comparative analysis: Theoretical issues and empirical findings," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 32(8), pages 899-908, January.
    6. Singh-Manoux, Archana & Marmot, Michael, 2005. "Role of socialization in explaining social inequalities in health," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 60(9), pages 2129-2133, May.
    7. Rütten, Alfred & Abu-Omar, Karim & Frahsa, Annika & Morgan, Antony, 2009. "Assets for policy making in health promotion: Overcoming political barriers inhibiting women in difficult life situations to access sport facilities," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 69(11), pages 1667-1673, December.
    8. Rütten, Alfred & Gelius, Peter, 2011. "The interplay of structure and agency in health promotion: Integrating a concept of structural change and the policy dimension into a multi-level model and applying it to health promotion principles a," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 73(7), pages 953-959.
    9. Popay, Jennie & Thomas, Carol & Williams, Gareth & Bennett, Sharon & Gatrell, Anthony & Bostock, Lisa, 2003. "A proper place to live: health inequalities, agency and the normative dimensions of space," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 57(1), pages 55-69, July.
    10. Donahue, John M. & McGuire, Meredith B., 1995. "The political economy of responsibility in health and illness," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 40(1), pages 47-53, January.
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