I noted a review pop up today in Sociology of Health and Illness of a book about which I had been unaware, which book sounds absolutely fascinating. The book is entitled Beyond Evidence Based Policy in Public Health: The Interplay of Ideas, by Katherine Smith, a reader in the Global Public Health Unit at the University of Edinburgh. Here is the blurb:
This book explores the complex relationship between public health research and policy, employing tobacco control and health inequalities in the UK as contrasting case studies. It draws on extensive qualitative data to demonstrate why it makes more sense to focus on ideas, rather than evidence, as the unit of analysis when studying public health knowledge exchange. The book goes on to outline a four-genre typology of ideas, inspired by the work of Max Weber and Bruno Latour, which helps explain both the disjuncture between health inequalities research and policy and the recent spate of policy activity in tobacco control. It argues that focusing on research-informed ideas usefully draws attention to the centrality of values, politics and advocacy for public health debates.
I was very pleased to see that my library maintains an e-copy of this book, as it touches on some ideas that help tie together my work in the history of ideas and in public health ethics/law/policy. Specifically, I want to insist that ideas about health, illness, disease, and the body are critical in framing policy discourse and in shaping policy selection and emphasis. Put in less-jargony terms, what we think and believe about public health plays an enormous role in the laws and policies through which public health is implemented and enacted.
I have written about this in various pieces, but in an unfortunately scattered fashion. I have yet to (be able to?) link the strands of historiography, law, and policy together to make the crucial point regarding the role ideas play in public health. I have a mind to do so in a book that I am very slowly working on, but I am very pleased to see a promising analysis dedicated to the significance of ideas in shaping public health policies.
The brutal fact is that public policy in general is only rarely made based on the best evidence, and public health policy is no exception. Dr. Smith’s book seems to take this as a crucial point of departure for the analysis of ideas, and this is a really excellent approach, IMO.
Perhaps I’ll circle back around after I’ve read the durned thing, but for now, there’s a nice review in the LSE Review of Books.