Public Health Gets its Groove On

A story published in yesterday’s Washington Post reports that for the “global generation,” public health is a “hot field” of research. Although this demographic isn’t defined, let’s assume that it comprises primarily university and college-educated youth with a cosmopolitan sensibility. Echoing some of the conceptual underpinnings of Ulrich Beck’s second modernity thesis, the notion that the processes of modernization have generated unplanned side effects that present themselves as new problems in the forms of risks, the article claims that curiosity and awareness about public health dilemmas and problems is essential in the “flattened, crowded and worried world of the 21st century.” To paraphrase Giddens, risk and danger have become secularized as part of a world structured mainly by humanly created risks which can be assessed only in terms of generalisable knowledge about potential dangers (Consequences of Modernity, p.111).

The article notes that one of the major forces driving this new interest in public health is the way in which media and communication technologies “put students in touch with far-flung people and institutions,” thereby creating demand for knowledge that will enable them to navigate the global village with a greater sense of security and safety. Enter public health studies.

“Observers also credit a flowering of social consciousness in today’s students,” the article reports. “While the causes of their parents’ generation were fueled by protest and relied heavily on symbolic victories, the interest in public health reflects this generation’s more communitarian and practical outlook.”

The article tilts heavily toward an epidemiological approach to public health that relies on a rational self oriented toward stabilizing their identity in a culture of anxiety and risk, mentioning issues of communication and mass media only obliquely. It’s certainly a truism that “nearly all health stories in the news — from the possible hazards of bisphenol A in plastics and the theory that vaccines cause autism, to racial disparities in health care and missteps in the investigation of tainted peppers — are better understood with grounding in that discipline.” Public health advocates and practitioners would also be well served by acquiring a better understanding of communication practices and technologies and of understanding that they can be both produce and potentially alleviate anxiety — no doubt this would also  facilitate the development of more effectively articulated arguments for advancing public health objectives.

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