Tag: obesity

Why do we do what we do? The poverty of individualist explanations

Why do we do what we do?  The poverty of individualist explanations.


Photo by Sofiya Levchenko on Unsplash

We all like cake don’t we? Oh, and beer…and yes wine…and…and


In common talk around health issues, we hear and read a great deal about ‘taking individual responsibility for health’ or the need for ‘helping people to make better choices’  and we hear explanations for ill health based on people’s choice of unhealthy lifestyles. Papers like the Daily Mail like to focus unhealthy working class ‘chav’ cultures in a bid to promote outrage and to garner support to reduce the Welfare State. Every New Year, gym membership rises, dry January is embarked upon and resolutions to quit smoking are made. Failure often follows. The UK population is getting fatter, it drinks excessively and takes little exercise. We are also a nation consuming antidepressants as if they were smarties. Some individuals of course are ‘paragons of virtue’ in terms of health and the question is asked “if they can do it, why don’t the rest of us?”  Often this is framed within personal success stories as “I did it, so you can too (you fat lazy bastard)”. Celebrities are often promoted as role models for a “leaner, fitter, healthier you”.

Most people probably know that eating better and taking more exercise is better for health. So why do we see continuing patterns of chronic ill health, patterns which show social class differences, i.e. the  ‘social gradient’, and unequal health outcomes. Those in the lower socio economic groups die younger, experience more chronic illness and have fewer disability free years.  Is it really all down to individual moral failure? Why don’t millions of us get up off our fat arses, do something positive and take responsibility for health? Why don’t we as a population exercise our agency to act for better health? After all, we are all free autonomous people able to choose courses of action.

The complete freedom to think and act may be more complicated than adherents of the ‘autonomous sovereign individual’ may have us believe. The model of the ‘free sovereign individual’, so beloved by libertarians, neoliberals and most hues of conservatism in their political stances, is a flawed and incomplete model of human behaviour. It is a model of human behaviour that arose in Enlightenment modernity, and results in the creation of ‘homo economicus’, the free instrumentally rational being, who weighs up the pros and cons of action independently of social or cultural influences or internal psychological drivers,  and is 100% result responsible therefore for the consequences of their action.

Max Weber introduced the word ‘Verstehen’ (German for understanding, perceiving, knowing) to describe the sociologists’ attempt to grasp both the intent and context of human action. While the ‘man of modernity’ was increasingly using instrumental rationality to guide action, Weber described 4 ‘types’ of social action:


  1. Zweckrational – means/ends rationality
  2. Wertrational – values based rationality
  3. Affective action – emotion based
  4. Traditional action – based in custom and practice.


Today, many ignore or forget all but ‘zweckrational’, assuming that is our only way of thinking. We know from experience however, that we choose courses of action not because they are always meeting a certain goal, but because of a mixture of all 4 types of reasoned action. Many also think about these types (if at all) as existing independently of society. Weber’s insight was to link these types to changing social conditions. He argued that modern societies differed from those of the past because of the shift to zweckrational thinking rooted in the growth of bureaucracy and industrialism. This might explain why today, in bureaucratised, industrialised societies, that instrumental, technical, means ends thinking came to dominate. The error for many is that the ‘is’ of the dominance of zweckrational becomes the ‘ought’, the only way to think and it becomes the assumed method of human thinking. I suggest that those trained in scientific, technical and logical (means-ends) occupations are apt to think using ‘zweckrational’ but assume that is how everybody else does and ought to think. They then become one dimensional in their own thoughts, unable to grasp the complexity of human decision making.

The social theorist Margaret Archer also describes this ‘man of modernity’ as “a being whose fundamental constitution owes nothing to society” (2000 p 51) and (following Weber) who is increasingly driven by instrumental rationality or ‘means-ends’ thinking. This is the ‘ready-made man’ who turns up out of nowhere to impose his own order on the world and applies rational thought to social concerns. It is a view of humanity that believes that our ‘self’, our individuality,  exists totally separate from society, that it is not constituted at all by society or culture. The free acting self is an independent of society and culture free thinking and rational being. We will hear echoes of this man’s voice when we hear such statements as “only the individual should and can take responsibility for health”, “there is no such thing as society, just individuals and families” and “eat less  – move more” injunctions to reduce weight. Any idea of social structure or social forces is completely denied. In this view there are no social mechanisms operating ‘behind our backs’ that might be guiding free choices.


This model of the self assumes the primacy of agency devoid of social structure or cultural or language contexts. It not only assumes the primacy of agency, but elevates it into a core aspect of the political project (neoliberalism) to reduce any action on poverty or welfare beyond that of individuals, families and charities. If there is no society, then there is nothing society can or should do.


Those who adhere to this model might think that obese and overweight people merely freely choose to eat more than they need, that their inability to lose weight is down only to their weak moral character and lack of will power. The obese should “just say no” to a second pork pie. Against this I suggest that they eat and move within the structures and cultures of the ‘obesogenic environment’ (Foresight 2007) and within cultural practices around food that becomes aspects of who they are, that they build into their self-concept. Veganism for example has been seen as the preserve of a slightly effete (?) minority and for many men especially, just cannot be built into their own notions of self as ‘red meat eating males’. Their self-concept as a man excludes this food choice as viable. They are of course free to act as a vegan but the structural and cultural context militates against men many doing so. Some men will be able to draw upon their material, psychological, biological, social, cultural, spatial and symbolic assets to exercise their agency to become vegan. Many others will not be able to exercise the same degree of freedom to do so.


There is not the space to fully explore this idea of the ‘free, pre-existing, independent from society’ view of self, other than to suggest that extricating human agency and the ‘self’ completely out of the effects of language, culture and social structure is erroneous. I emphasise however, the pernicious persistence of this idea in current culture, politics and health policy as it underpins much understanding of, and pronouncements about, human behaviour towards health.


I also suggest that those whose knowledge is non-existent, or superficially grounded, in philosophy, the humanities or social sciences cannot exercise their agency to begin to understand this argument. Their ‘ways of knowing’ and sense of self  is in violent opposition to it. They will be so embedded in certain social structures and cultural assumptions and values that the self they experience is unable to grasp the concepts. They will read the words but will feel an instant visceral hatred of the challenge to sovereign individuality because it shakes the very foundations of who they think they are and the basis for success and failure. Current ideal types would be Boris Johnson, Peter Thiel the PayPal billionaire, Rupert Murdoch, Donald Trump, many in Silicon Valley and the alt-right. In fact most of the powerful world leaders would fall into this category including Putin, Erdogan and Modi. They all feature varying degrees of narcissism and the assumptions of what Graham Scambler calls the ‘Greedy Bastards’.


Part of the answer to understating why we do what we do,  will be found by exercising our sociological imaginations to gain a fuller understanding of human behaviour. We need to think beyond the action of an individual, to consider the wider actions of society and culture that provides the context for individual choices at this point in history..

Take the choice to eat insects. In the UK we are free to do so. We could exercise our ‘free agency’ as sovereign individuals. There is no biological reason why we don’t. There is no legal barrier to doing so. There is no trade barrier, tariffs or taxes in importing insects as food. What prevents us eating insects is a combination of cultural barriers with a lack of social institutions that values eating insects, no social institutions providing access to insects. Psychologically we might think that the eating of insects is not part of our ‘self-concept’, there is no social learning going on because no one is doing it, the mental short cuts bypass rational appraisal and go straight to the ‘yuk’ factor. We live in an obesogenic environment and not an ‘insectivorous’ environment.

Why do fat people eat pork pies? Why don’t thin people eat insects?

Graham Scambler in wishing to establish a theory of agency in sociology argues:


Humans…are simultaneously the products of biological, psychological and social mechanisms while retaining their agency…socially structured without being structurally determined


I think this means that if you want to know why some people can resist eating the pork pie and most in the UK resist eating insects, you have to think holistically rather than individualistically. You have to avoid the temptation to be reductionist and instead think ‘systems’.

A biologist would focus on physiological processes and raise the importance of body chemicals such as leptin, dopamine, serotonin and endorphins in stimulating behaviour. They might acknowledge the physiological role of sugar and processed carbohydrates in providing very satisfying, but unhealthy, eating habits. This is perhaps the first hurdle that ‘will power’ has to overcome.  ‘Willpower’ is of course the ‘go to’ mechanism for those with individualist understandings.

A psychologist might explain eating patterns from a variety of perspectives: cognitive psychology might outline the role of mental short cuts that bypass rational thinking; behavioural psychology emphasising the conditioned nature of responses; social psychology which asks us to consider the power of social learning upon choices and psychodynamic psychology which would raise deep seated emotions as drivers for behaviour e.g. food playing the ‘comfort’ role. All have explanations that down play the power of rationality.  Key concepts within psychology which could be linked to why we eat as we do include:

  • Self-Efficacy.
  • Body Image.
  • Locus of Control.
  • ‘What the hell’ effects.
  • Future Discounting.
  • Classical/Operant Conditioning.
  • System 1 and System 2 thinking.
  • Self and self-awareness.
  • Adult, Child, Parent Ego States.


Both biology and psychology examine the individual body and mind. They seek explanations for human agency within ourselves. For some people, that is enough. Yet both disciplines cast huge doubt on the idea of ‘free thinking sovereign individuals’ who use rational thought, and the exercise of sheer willpower in achieving their aims.

If you have not eaten for three or four hours, and you pass a shop selling freshly baked bread or pasties, or foodstuffs you very much enjoy, your will power to lose weight is severely challenged first by your biology as the body reacts to sight and smell of delicious food and then by your psychology as the ‘what the hell effect’ kicks in supported by ‘future discounting’. Your future self as a slim lean athlete is discounted by your immediate self’s need for food.  As you go through your day you are immersed in social and cultural invitations and opportunities to eat and to eat too much. Against this is will power, unless you can actively design your social and cultural environment every single day to support will power, you may well crack. Do you have the material, psychological, social, cultural, spatial and symbolic assets to do this day after day after day for years? For the rest of your life? Some also have poor biological health assets in this regard as in utero processes may well have pre-set a certain weight for you that your body will always want to get to.

We are not completely free autonomous agents beloved of neoliberal ideology. Our lives are highly structured, but not determined. We are the result of a complex interplay of our biology, our psychology and the social. Underpinning much of the common discourse in our media is the idea of the ‘liberal human self’, and failures to live healthy lifestyles are to be found in the individual. This belief, and it is a belief not a scientific fact, often leads to a ‘Moral Underclass Discourse’ (MUD) to explain health inequalities. The MUD focuses on cultural and behavioural explanations, rather than sociological, for health inequalities. It is a discourse that leads easily to victim blaming.

We need to think a little more critically about this explanation, particularly as it has a great deal of political and social force in terms of policies we design to tackle health. We need to bring the social (structure) into the individual (agency). We need to ask to what degree are we free agents who can take 100% responsibility for our lives, we need to examine what social structures exist in which that agency operates.

Margaret Archer has published a series of books on this central problem of structure and agency, i.e. the relationship between our personal actions as free agents and the societies and social structures we are born into.

We know that smoking is linked to illness and disease, we also know there are patterns to smoking which show prevalence is not spread equally across class or age. If we want to more fully understand smoking behaviour we require not only the sociological imagination but also why people as ‘free agents’ continue to smoke despite knowing the consequences. The answer is of course complex, situated in and mediated by a matrix of the biological, social and psychological. Smoking occurs in a social context in which people are enabled or constrained in their behaviours by the structures of society and mediated by their and others’ ‘reflexive deliberations’ and to a degree, their biology (the ‘substance’ (nicotine) theory of addiction).

Archer’s theory suggests that our individual actions are predated by the existence of social structure of, for example, class relationships. Class structure, and the culture associated with it, are transmitted to individuals. In smoking’s case, the culture of smoking was once widespread across all social classes and therefore to take up the habit was not to be seen as a social pariah. Quite the opposite. George Orwell in both ‘Homage to Catalonia’ and ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’ describes vividly the valued place of tobacco in people’s lives. Today however, smoking has a class characteristic to it, the middle classes apparently are more open to health warnings than those lower on the social scale. This ‘predates’ any individual coming into puberty today. The ‘cachet’ associated with smoking, or its status as a rite of passage, has to be factored in to understanding why some people shun the habit while others embrace it.

Archer however does not wish to over emphasise how such social structures affect action, rather there needs to be a focus on how agents respond and act to those circumstances. There is a causal efficacy to agency, we are not automatons responding to class structures or obesogenic environments. We can make choices to act in certain ways to not buy the pork pie.  We do so by having internal conversations which are mediated by our ‘mode of reflexivity’ which at this point in history is particularly salient.

You and I are confronted in our daily lives by social circumstances, and we have a choice of action. We bring to that choice of action our own priorities, our ‘projects and concerns’. What we then do is mediated by the type of internal conversation, or reflexive deliberation,  we have. Archer’s thesis is that in the past social structures were such that little self reflexivity occurred. We ‘knew our place’, we knew what our role was and what status we had.  However, as societies modernised, cultures and structures confronting us are far more open to change and critique, and are so by the actions of the people involved. Women for example, no longer took for granted that their place was to rear children and to engage in domestic labour. They thought about the franchise and employment and some decided to act differently to ‘break the mould’. Why do some act to challenge social structure and why do others conform and thus replicate social structures?

“The subjective powers of reflexivity mediate the role that objective structural or cultural powers play in influencing social action and are thus indispensable to explaining social outcomes’ (Archer, 2007: 5).

In other words, your inner voice is confronted by the facts of the obesogenic environment or of social class or of gender relationships in the work place, but that fact can be acted upon so that action can for example be fatalistic towards that circumstance or instead might confront it in an attempt to overcome any perceived or actual disadvantage.

Agency is necessarily contextualized, it occurs in a context of social structure and culture. That is the objective fact the people confront every day.

Archer’s (1995, 2003, 2007) way of articulating this is in terms of a three-stage model.

  • Structural and cultural properties objectivelyshape the situations that people confront involuntarily; the structural and cultural possess powers of constraint and enablement in relation to
  • People’s own constellations of concerns, as they define them.
  • Courses of action are produced through the reflexive deliberationsof subjects who subjectively determine their practical projects in relation to their objective


Think about the social structures that produce, advertise and market and then distribute food  – how that this currently characterised by the industrial production of delicious, tasty and cheap foodstuffs packed with sugar, salt and calories. The objective cultural context might include aversion to walking and cycling as we perceive these as impractical, dangerous or too slow.  Think about the culture of eating food and the sociability that surrounds certain foodstuffs. What currently does wine play in the cultural life of many women and beer for men? These objective conditions provide ‘enablements’ to eating easily too many calories. It is made easy to do so. What constraints do we have in eating too much? Well, against the above we have health injunctions not to do so, we have body images that emphasise thinness with attractiveness. If the various constraints to eating too much are not as strong as the enablements, then the individual has to work hard  on clearly identifying their ‘concerns’ – one of which is to lose weight. This has to be turned into a project, something that they focus on every day to combat the many opportunities to fail at achieving the goal. People will tell themselves if the daily project of losing weight is achievable given the reality of their working and social lives. They will draw upon their health assets to help them do so. If their health assets are very poor across the board success is not impossible (they are after all free agents) but it will be harder.


Agency operates within certain social and cultural contexts, so consider how agency operated by an A list actress and a struggling in debt mother. What social ‘forces’ propelled them into two very different circumstances and how much is down to personal achievement, luck or circumstance? Consider they now give birth to daughters. What are the chances of either girl using personal agency to radically alter their circumstances. Yes, it happens (e.g. Oprah Winfrey) but who will have the easier path?


The following table are ideal types to illustrate just some of complexity of the interplay between biology, psychology and sociology in understanding health choices and health outcomes. These factors are not be thought of as a simple cause effect relationship, there are feedback loops and emergent properties from the whole. Nothing is predestined, all is possible. The list is not exhaustive either. There may be other confounding variables that will change outcomes. The actress may develop a cocaine habit, Vicky may become an ‘Educated Rita’.


Asset A list celebrity Actress Vicky Pollard “yeah but no”
Biological Ectomorph

Non variant FTO gene

No chronic illnesses


Variant FTO gene


Psychological High self-efficacy

High self esteem

High body image (body reality matches body ideal

Internal locus of control

Emotional and sexual support

Depression free

Positive outlook

Low self-efficacy

Low self esteem

Poor body image (body reality far from body ideal)

External locus of control

Emotional and sexual abuse

Bouts of depression

Suicidal ideation

Social Similar looking thin peer group

Network effect positive

Social support for domestic needs

Child care easily affordable

Food prepared by nutritionist

Supportive parents and spouse

Socially popular

Wealthy successful peers

The 0.01% Global elite

Private School and Drama school paid by parents

Similar looking fat peer group

Network effect negative

No social support for domestic needs

Child care expensive

Food prepared by Greggs

Parents both dead, absent partner

Social pariah

Poor just about managing peers

The local Precariat

Left at 16 with no qualifications.

Cultural Ambitious

Health high priority

Non smoker

Gym membership

Non violent


Health discounted


Daytime TV

Emotional, verbal and physical violence common/expected

Spatial Beverly Hills, Sunshine, Sea View and palm trees Concrete high rise, Rain, Industrial Units and burned cars
Symbolic ‘A’ list Chav

This asset is paramount as it feeds into the others

High Net worth


In debt.






Graham Scambler, emeritus professor at UCL, has written a series of blogs based on the work of Margaret Archer. His work can be found here: http://www.grahamscambler.com/sociological-theorists-margaret-archer/.

Archer,M (1995) Realist Social Theory: The Morphogenetic Approach. Cambridge; Cambridge University Press.

Archer,M (1998)  Realism in the social sciences. In Eds Archer,M, Bhaskar,R, Collier,A, Lawson,T & Norrie,A: Critical realism: Basic Readings. London; Routledge.

Archer,M (2003) Structure, Agency and the Internal Conversation. Cambridge; Cambridge University Press.

Archer,M (2007) Making our Way Through the World. Cambridge; Cambridge University Press.

Archer,M (2012) The Reflexive Imperative in Late Modernity. Cambridge; Cambridge University Press.

Archer,M (2014) The generative mechanism re-configuring late modernity. In Ed Archer,M: Late Modernity: Trajectories Towards Morphogenetic Society. New York; Springer




Obesity and society

our social envionment encourages obesity

Peter Dawson, a pharmacist, discusses obesity and its ‘origins’ in society. He starts with a retired teacher’s personal account of weight gain and makes the important point that nurses would do well to remember: ‘Knowledge does not lead to behaviour change’. I suggest that knowledge might (only might) be a necessary step, but it is not a sufficient step to changes in behaviour. The Lancet has called weight gain “a normal response by a normal person in an abnormal environment” (Lancet 2011 378 (9793): p741 – the hyperlink is in the article). Obesity has ‘social determinants’, we live in social and physical envionments where the ability to make the right choice is often severly compromised: Consider the Food and Drink industry, car use, urban planning and the changing structure of employment (away from jobs requiring physical labour). A key concept: ‘Obesogenic environment’. These latter factors are what Wright Mills (1959)* refers to as ‘structural transformations’ that help to create your ‘inner life’.

The equation: ‘calories in v calories out’ is too simple an explanation (Dr Harry Rutter). the reality is far more complex than this biophysical explanation.

*see the blog on the ‘sociological imagination’.

http://www.foodpolitics.com/tag/calories/page/2/  An interesting view from two professors in the USA.

http://www.foodpolitics.com/2011/08/the-lancets-series-on-obesity/  The Lancet series on obesity

Harry Rutter  ’Where next for obesity’The Lancet, Volume 378, Issue 9793, Pages 746 – 747, 27 August 2011 : “There is a seductive simplicity to the conceptualisation of obesity as a straightforward problem of energy balance—calories in versus calories out. But the physiological, behavioural, and environmental influences on this relation are asymmetrical. Therefore, although the basic arithmetic holds true, in practice it is much easier for people, and populations, to gain weight than to lose it”.

Our social environment encourages obesity

our social environment encourages obesity

How might social factors influence experiences of health & illness?

…and ‘How might this be relevant to the work of the nurse’?



What do we mean by social factors? This term covers a multiple meanings, but lets start by thinking about what people and society do and the categories we place ourselves, and others, into. A social factor then is something that might have an effect on us as we go about our daily lives as social actors. Emile Durkheim in ‘The Rules of Sociological Method’ (1895) wrote about ‘social facts’ as almost having a life of their own:  “treat social facts as things” existing outside of our individual consciousness. The common categories or factors include things like:



Socio economic status.




We might also want to consider social structures such as:



Leisure, Work and Occupations.



Military–Industrial Complex.


Consumer-Industrial Complex.


Before we proceed just consider how the above social structures have changed over time.


The following will discuss obesity and a heart attack using our sociological imagination. I will then consider the relevance for nursing.



To illustrate how any of these affect health we could take the issue of Obesity. Why are populations globally all getting fatter over the past couple of decades? A biological explanation founders in that it requires some biological mechanism that has changed for billions of people. Evolution does not work that fast. As there are differences between groups of people and individuals there is something psychological and or sociological happening.


It might be linked to one’s socio-economic status, as we know that poverty and economic and social deprivation are correlated to increased weight in populations. McLaren (2007) argues that obesity is a social phenomenon. That is to say it is just not a physical or biological condition to be explained or dealt with only in physical terms (e.g. the injunction to eat less and exercise more). Action on obesity includes targeting both economic and sociocultural factors. McLaren illustrates the varying social patterns involved in level of obesity in this review of studies.


Roberts and Edwards (2010) suggest that world-wide, over a billion adults are overweight and 300 million are officially obese. Their book ‘The Energy Glut’ suggests that how energy is both sourced, e.g. oil, and used, e.g. car driving, is directly linked to growing obesity. They suggest ‘fatness’ and climate change, are manifestations of the same fundamental cause. It is down to how oil based fossil fuel energy, after being discovered, started not only the process of catastrophic climate change, but also propelled the average human weight distribution upwards.


In addition they suggest that the food industry uses sophisticated marketing techniques to sell us mountains of energy-dense food whilst at the same time we are ‘functionally paralysed’. We just don’t move about as we used to, partly because the opportunities to do so diminish. This could be seen especially in the UK with increased car use, road building, living miles from work and the growth of retail outlets built out of town to exploit car use, poor public transport and poor cycling infrastructure. The accumulation of body fat is therefore a political, not a personal, problem.








The Information Centre has published Statistics on Obesity, Physical Activity and Diet: England 2012. The topics covered in the report include, overweight and obesity prevalence among adults and children, physical activity levels among adults and children, trends in purchases and consumption of food and drink and energy intake and health outcomes of being overweight or obese.




Key facts

         In 2010, just over a quarter of adults (26 per cent of both men and women aged 16 or over) in England were classified as obese (BMI 30kg/m2 or over). For the same period, around three in ten boys and girls (aged 2 to 15) were classed as either overweight or obese (31 per cent and 29 per cent respectively).

         In 2010, 41 per cent of respondents (aged 2+) said they made walks of 20 minutes or more at least 3 times a week and an additional 23 per cent said they did so at least once or twice a week in Great Britain (GB). However, 20 per cent of respondents reported that they took walks of at least 20 minutes “less than once a year or never” in GB.

         In 2010, 25 per cent of men and 27 per cent of women consumed the recommended five or more portions of fruit and vegetables daily.

         The number of Finished Admission Episodes (FAEs) in NHS hospitals with a primary diagnosis of obesity among people of all ages was 11,574 in 2010/11. This is over ten times as high as the number in 2000/01 (1,054).



In 2010, there were 1.1 million prescription items for the treatment of obesity, a 24 per cent decrease on the previous year when 1.4 million items were dispensed. This is the first recorded decrease in seven years.




Heart Attacks


Wright Mills (1959) wrote:


 ‘…men (sic) do not usually define the troubles they endure in terms of historical change…’ (p3).


A middle aged man has a heart attack but he does not consider that his illness may be linked to living in the 21st century, or that the roots of his illness may lie in current society.


He is:


 ‘…seldom aware of the intricate connection between the patterns of their own lives and the course of world history.’ (p4).


Lying in a hospital bed, with ECG electrodes stuck to his chest, the man may curse his luck or put his condition to being overweight, his smoking habit and lack of exercise.


He does not:


‘…possess the quality of mind essential to grasp the interplay of man and society, of biography and history…’  (p4). 


In addition he:


‘..cannot cope with their personal troubles (his heart attack) in such ways as to control the structural transformations that lie behind them.’  (p4).


(my italics).


What ‘structural transformations’ (social factors) might lie behind the heart attack, or an eating disorder or binge drinking? What is a ‘structural transformation?’


If we think of society has having ‘structures’, which vary from society to society and which varies within the same society over time (history), we may begin to understand that society ‘works’ when individuals, groups, communities and populations decide to act out their relationships one with another and in doing so create (and are created by) social ‘structures’.  I have listed some structures on page 1.


In the above heart attack case what structures are there and what are those structures that lie beneath his personal trouble?


To help answer that question Wright Mills argued that:


‘what they need…is a quality of mind that will help them to use information and to develop reason in order to achieve lucid summations of what is going on in the world and of what may be happening within themselves…this quality…(is) the sociological imagination.’ (p5).


So we need to use information and reason to start making the links between society and illness. A heart attack results from a variety of sources. Some may be genetic, but others are patterns of living which are subject to social structure. The middle aged man just happened to have been born in the 1950’s into a working class background in Liverpool. His father worked as a docker and he in turn followed in his father’s footsteps.


Social class is a form of social structure. Living in working class Liverpool during the 1950’s to the 1970’s means engaging in certain eating habits, wearing certain clothes, taking holidays in certain places (in the UK) and following certain football teams. And, of course, smoking. Smoking is as natural an activity as breathing, even Division One footballers smoke. The ‘metrosexual’ man does not exist yet, there are no ‘Men’s Health’ magazines, cigarettes are cheap, there are no laws banning smoking in public places. The idea of working out in a gym does not feature except in the working class boxing clubs. Olive oil and the Mediterranean diet exist only in the Mediterranean. Eating (saturated fat) red meat is masculine. ‘Jogging’ has not entered into the English language yet, exercise is for athletes or only takes place when playing Sunday football for the local pub team. Car use is becoming more common and cycling is in decline. Margaret Thatcher was soon to say that a 30 year old man on a bus is a failure so public transport is only for those who have to.


The social structure of this man’s early years involve lifestyles that increase his chance of a heart attack but he was not aware of all the connections. He thinks all his choices are his own, but he is unaware that choice is limited and results from those chances handed out to him. His choices are also based on imperfect information and also upon the wishes of others who want him to make certain choices (e.g. the cigarette manufacturers). If the society in which he lives offers him the choice of A, B and C and he chooses A, he may think he has made a real choice. But what if there is choice F, G and H that he is not aware of through circumstance or that history has not yet provided?


in 1950, one could choose to smoke anywhere and the lack of a strong public health campaign and research evidence did not point to the deadly nature of the practice. The personal trouble of smoking has to be seen in the context of that history.


Fast forward to 2010 and a new historical period. The public issue of millions dying of lung cancer has affected change in society and now impacts differently upon the individual. Social structures have been transformed since the 1950’s. For example, we now think of smoking not as glamorous but as a ‘filthy habit’. Men no longer congregate in pubs where everyone smokes inside.


‘The sociological imagination enables its possessor to understand the larger historical scene in terms of its meaning for the inner life….’ (p5).


Thus, the middle aged heart attack victim who has this ‘quality of mind’ would understand his present trouble as linked to the context of 1950’s Britain where working class life took smoking for granted. He knows that all his friends smoke and that the likelihood of him smoking is high, given the social context and the time in which he lives.



Nursing relevance


This depends on where the nurse works. In an intensive care unit or in many acute settings, it is irrelevant to the everyday clinical practice of giving physical care. In primary care however, understanding how social factors impact on people’s lives may suggest strategies for mitigating them and for engaging in health promotion and health education. The obvious is knowledge for healthy eating habits or exploring personal physical activity levels.


However, certain issues will require action at the community or political level. This calls into question the social and political role both for the individual nurses and for nursing as a profession. Public health is a core part of nurse education and thus understanding social causes for ill health is part of the public health role for nursing. Wright Mills argues that it is the job of the social scientist or the liberal educator to foster the sociological imagination so that people become aware of how social factors (in our case) affect health and illness. We could argue that this applies to nurses in that once we know what causes disease we might have a duty to do something about it at the social level if it is caused by social factors (i.e. the ‘Social Determinants of Health’).


At the very least we should be very wary of victim blaming or accepting wholesale simplistic arguments over personal responsibility, see for example Wind Cowle (2012), while at the same time we do very little to curb fast food outlets, regulate the food industry, curb car use through urban planning or encouraging active travel alternatives such as cycling. 


Nursing has various elements to it: giving direct patient care, working in a team, managing oneself and personal development. To that we could add the need for networking and political awareness to exercise nursing leadership. Therefore I suggest that developing an understanding of the social factors involved in health and illness can assist a nurse in developing in these various elements to various degrees regardless of where one works.



Benny Goodman 2012







McLaren, S. (2007) Socioeconomic status and obesity. Epidemiological Reviews 29 (1): 29-48.http://epirev.oxfordjournals.org/content/29/1/29.abstract


Roberts, I. and Edwards P (2010) The Energy glut. The Politics of fatness in an overheating world. Zed Books


Wind Cowle, M (2012) The NHS needs people to be more responsible http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2012/sep/25/nhs-needs-people-be-more-responsible


World Health Organisation (2008) Closing the Gap in a generation. The Social Determinants of Health. http://www.who.int/social_determinants/en/


Wright Mills, C. (1959) The Sociological Imagination. Oxford University Press. Oxford.







Feminist poststructuralism as a lens towards understanding obesity.

More than meets the eye.

Feminist poststructuralism as a lens towards understanding obesity.

Firstly this paper by Aston et al (2011) opens by accepting the framing of obesity as a health emergency or ‘concern’ and it does so by referencing the World Health Organisation’s (2011) ‘global epidemic’ phrase. Thus it contributes to a value position that obesity is indeed a medical issue with negative health consequences. The position is then taken that obesity is a ‘disease’ arising out of social and environmental conditions. That is to say it accepts that obesity is a disease but that its causes are not rooted only within individuals and their behaviour but as arising from their social position and the environment they live in (the ‘obesogenic’ environment).  They argue “Obesity now represents a major public health issue” (p1188) and according to the WHO (1998) is the second most modifiable cause of ill health after smoking. Aston et al use the word alarming to describe Canada’s population where 60% are overweight or obese. The issue as to whether obesity is simply a disease that needs curing regardless whether its aetiology is individual or social, is open to question. However for the purposes of this paper I wish to explore what feminist post structuralism (FPS) can bring to understanding obesity.

Feminist Post Structuralism.

Aston et al argue that FPS seeks to understand the meaning and experience of obesity as arising from our social relationships. It also seeks to understand how power relationships work between individuals as they are constructed through social, institutional and political structures. In other words, what are the power relationships involved in for example daughter-mother family relationships “mum’s on a diet again…and my bum does look big in this!” (social); worker-employer relationships “oi!  lard arse, get off yer bum back in the office or we’ll put you on a fitness course!” (institutional);  and patient-health policy relationships “I note Mrs Jones, that you BMI is well into the overweight category…we need to reduce that to reduce your risk of diabetes and heart disease…what weight loss programme shall we use, have you seen Change for life?” (policy-political),  and how do they affect the individual’s life experiences and chances? In this context, we would seek to examine the talk between the ‘fat’ and the nurse, we would want to understand both their beliefs and values and stereotypes and how this talk and interaction (including body language) constructs the experience of being fat in this encounter. This also examines how the fat are observed and measured, what questions are asked of them and how those questions are put to them and what solutions are put forward (e.g. eat less, exercise more!).

FPS seeks to examine the personal experiences, the relationships people have, and how they understand how power operates in each social setting, be it the family, the workplace or the health clinic. This point of view (perspective) accepts that life is social and therefore our personal experiences (personal troubles) can be understood through examining how social, cultural and institutional beliefs, stereotypes and norms (public issues) affect us.

This perspective is an alternative to a medical discourse (a medical way of thinking and talking about) which accepts as axiomatic, as self-evident, that a person’s health is predominantly under the control of the individual. Therefore a good deal of research within this sort of thinking seeks to understand obesity as arising from psychological and genetic factors and examines personal behaviours  involved in weight gain.

Furthermore, health interventions and health professionals may tacitly accept this medical discourse and design interventions around changing personal and behavioural factors (e.g. ‘Change for Life’). This approach has not and will not work. It is largely ineffective in reversing population obesity. Roberts and Edwards (2010) in ‘The Energy Glut’ suggest that whole populations across the globe are ‘getting fatter’; waist circumference and BMI measurements are increasing in developing as well as developed nations. If obesity needs to be understood as part of social relationships and relationships of power at that, then we need to challenge the notion of obesity as only a personal problem (a personal trouble). Applying the sociological imagination (Wright Mills 1959) to obesity we would seek to understand the personal trouble of obesity as a public issue, relating the personal biography of the ‘fat’ individual to historical changes and social structures.

So how does FPS throw light upon this issue?

1.      By focusing on discourse.

2.      By focusing on power relationships.

3.      By focusing on subjectivity (one’s ‘subject position’) and agency.


One’s experience, beliefs and values are shaped by and shape the language we use about obesity. By examining how we talk about it to uncover our stereotypes and beliefs allows us to clarify our personal understanding and how we come to our understanding. When we listen to healthcare professionals talking about obesity as a disease and the need for personal responsibility for behavioural change we may believe that it is down to us to eat less and exercise more. After all that is the main message. We may even use this language to describe our battle with weight.


Individuals and groups have the power to impose a discourse onto interactions. These are supported by contextual factors (where that interaction takes place, for example the GP surgery). Health policies such as Change for Life position the fat as needing to take personal responsibility.  Being overweight and its negative connotations is supported by medical research into the health risks and positions it as a ‘bad thing’. The fat can’t challenge this discourse as they don’t have a counter position. There are plenty of places where fat is seen as negative and as a disease (hospitals, clinics, surgeries, health centres, leisure and sports centres) and where it fat and fat people are excluded except as negative stereotypes (magazines, film and TV programmes, advertising, jokes, comedy).

Subjectivity and Agency.

We can come to see our subjective selves as being constructed through the above discourses and power relationships but through our agency (our ability to act) can come to challenge dominate negative or ‘disease’ discourses through dialogue, research, speaking out and open communication. So, on the one hand our subjective self can be beaten down with an acceptance that it is my personal responsibility to get thin and if I cannot then it is my fault. My subjective self may even accept the need for doing so in an attempt to align my body image with some thin ideal and as part of healthy living to prevent disease. I may accept that I am already ‘ill’ by being overweight. However by engaging my ‘agency’, my ability to act, I may challenge some of these assumptions and want evidence for the positions taken. For example, at what stage does extra weight really become unhealthy? How do I balance enjoying life with all that it offers with a rigid abstinence regime in the hope of achieving a thin ideal? Do I want to live longer as a thin person (if that is actually what may occur) if I have to count every calorie and give up beer?

“You call me fat, I feel fat, but actually I don’t think it is my fault entirely…this is not about blame or making me out to be a victim…you have to realise that the food choices I am faced with, the transport options I have are having an impact. It is not easy to change everything about my life when society continues to encourage weight gain. In any case the athletic thin ideal is unobtainable for me and I like a glass of wine and cheese, it what makes for a bon viveur”.


However, what is so F about FPS?

It seems clear from the paper that we need to challenge health, media, medicine and education organisations in their understanding about obesity. Society and the healthcare system has to recognise that the modernisation of our world (Wright Mills’ historical and structural changes) has set the global populations up for failure with respect to maintaining a healthy body weight through increases in opportunity for food intake and decreases in opportunity for energy expenditure, but I fail to see the feminism in this piece. What is the gendered nature of social relationships which would presumably affect women’s experiences? This paper does not make that clear. The obese in this paper are neither  male or female.

Aston M, Price S, Kirk S, and Penney T. (2011) More than meets the eye. Feminist poststructuralism as a lens towards understanding obesity. Journal of Advanced Nursing.

Benny Goodman. 2012

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