May 11, 2012

BSSR Lecture Series: Social Context as Risk Regulator: Extending the Stream of Causation

Speaker - Thomas A. Glass, Ph.D.

Causation is the central problem of health research. Our causal discourse shapes what we study, and how and where we intervene. The potential outcomes model is the most widely accepted causal framework in Epidemiology. However, many "upstream" factors of greatest interest to social scientists are incompatible with this framework. This contributes to a narrow focus on individual-level "down-stream" risk factors and to ineffective interventions that target individuals while ignoring social context.

This lecture will review causal discourse in light of the stream of causation metaphor, and suggest the concept of a risk regulator to address several key challenges. We attempt to upgrade this metaphor with a three-dimensional socio-environmental topography of risk. We argue that public health research may be improved by focusing on health behaviors as strategic action in the context of opportunities and constraints imposed by particular social settings. Several examples are given to illustrate how existing analytic tools can be used to study risk regulators. Finally, attention is given to the need for more contextually embedded data and emerging methods of data analysis that may improve the study of the role of social context in health research.

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