Juliet McMullin

in Public Health

ISBN: 9780199756797
Published online February 2011 | | DOI:

More Like This

Show all results sharing this subject:

  • Public Health and Epidemiology


Show Summary Details


The concept of culture has been used as a descriptive and explanatory concept in public health efforts to understand human action and knowledge about health, illness, medicine, and health-seeking practices of individuals and groups. Increased global connections and medical intervention, along with a renewed attention to health disparities and issues of cultural competence, have lead to the ubiquity of culture as an explanatory concept for health behaviors. Early definitions of culture viewed it as a holistic system that humans acquired through their interactions in society. While this definition recognized that culture is relational, occurring in human interaction, and pervades most facets of daily life, it also constructed culture as static and as an object or a thing that people have. Most researchers reject the latter half of this formulation. Current formations of the culture concept understand culture as a complex system of meanings. Culture is relational and learned; it is a dynamic process of meaning making that is informed and constrained by social contexts. This predominant view of culture consists of a shared system of meaning that is adaptive and always changing. As a shared meaning system, culture includes conscious and unconscious assumptions, assists in the interpretation of individual experience, and guides future expectations and actions. This fluid process allows people to move between meaning systems, such as dominant social values and their own local values, which at times overlap or even contradict each other. The more complex definition of culture involves debate and struggle over the exercise of power (who decides and what institutions enforce the meaning of a symbol or action). This recognition of the exercise of power in meaning making is most clearly seen in the recognition of biomedicine as a cultural system, efforts to understand the influence of culture on health professionals and policymakers, and the focus on issues of cultural competence. Although the culture concept is used by many disciplines to understand many human practices, the methodological tracing of cultural influences on health remains relatively unspecified in the literature. This lack of specificity facilitates a return to the use of culture as static, as a barrier to health improvement, and for a conflation of culture with race, ethnicity, socioeconomic characteristics, non-normative behavior, and even nationality. In the effort to improve the measurement of culture and the influence of culture on health, many authors caution against treating culture as a simple, fixed categorization variable. Because culture informs and is also influenced by social contexts (historical, economic, political, and geographic), the two must be examined and accounted for together.

Article.  4759 words. 

Subjects: Public Health and Epidemiology

Full text: subscription required

How to subscribe Recommend to my Librarian

Buy this work at Oxford University Press »

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content. Please, subscribe or login to access all content.