Why Social Sciences are vital to the Health Economy
Dr Jolanta Shields explains why Social Sciences help us to understand how to improve health and wellbeing and the role of Local Authorities (LAs) in doing this.
The Social Sciences are central to our understanding of society around us: people, economy, culture and polity. As a dynamic field of enquiry, it has developed through continued interaction with other sciences such as physics, medicine and biology moving the analysis of human condition beyond the institutional confines.
In this respect, social science is interdisciplinary in nature and has a widespread use and appeal. Yet, despite its significant contributions to knowledge and policy, twenty first century social science faces some notable challenges.
The rise of technology and the growing importance of automation vis a vis low productivity and the skill gap have in recent years raised a question about the capability of social sciences to effectively contribute to dealing with these issues (see the Augar Review, 2018).
Instead, other disciplines especially the STEM subjects have been singled out as the new frontiers of knowledge. The current government narrative seems to be premised on the assumption that physical and social sciences occupy discrete ontological and epistemological spaces, neatly contained within their own distinct boundaries with little relevance beyond them.
Yet, Social Science research has been instrumental across other disciplines, for instance in advancing medicine and our understanding of health beyond the narrow conception of the pathology of illness to include social, economic, and cultural factors, least of all the political context in which they are produced and reproduced.
In a recently published book chapter, together with my colleagues Anna Coleman from the University of Manchester and Tim Gilling from the Centre for Governance and Scrutiny, I have argued that it is crucial to consider broader factors commonly referred to as ‘the social determinants of health’ to better understand how to improve people's health and wellbeing.
By adopting Dahlgren and Whitehead’s (1991) rainbow model we illustrated how social and community networks are central to shaping health outcomes for different populations. In particular, we highlighted the role of Local Authorities (LAs) whose functions such as housing, leisure, transport and planning are closely aligned with wider determinants of health.
As democratically accountable bodies, LAs can shape services in a way that are responsive and targeted to local needs. Since the passing of the Social Value Act (2012) and HSCA 2012, LAs assumed additional powers and responsibilities for commissioning decisions that need to consider wider social, environmental and health impacts on local communities.
The devolution of health and social care in Greater Manchester illustrates the embeddness of place-based healthcare initiatives to address health inequalities at the local level. However, despite the apparent appeal of such approaches, power remains stubbornly located with central government with its distinct institutional logics, funding regimes, planning cycles and geographies complicating the efforts for local integration. The recent Covid-19 pandemic further demonstrates the importance of ‘place’ and ‘community’ in the distribution of risk factors exposing structural inequalities that precede the pandemic.
Social Science, as our chapter shows, can help to illuminate the political dimensions in health system planning that grant some stakeholders more power and influence over others. In this way, Social Science is invaluable in offering perspectives that transcend disciplinary and institutional boundaries and focus on social phenomena in its entirety.
Jolanta Shields is a Lecturer in Politics at Leeds Beckett University and an Associate Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. She previously worked at the University of Manchester, where she completed her ESRC funded PhD on the role of Community Interest Companies in the English NHS.