Philosophy of Population Health: Philosophy for a New Public Health Era, 1st Edition (Hardback) book cover

Philosophy of Population Health

Philosophy for a New Public Health Era, 1st Edition

By Sean A Valles


224 pages | 6 B/W Illus.

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Hardback: 9781138059900
pub: 2018-05-10
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pub: 2018-05-11
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Population health has recently grown from a series of loosely connected critiques of twentieth-century public health and medicine into a theoretical framework with a corresponding field of research—population health science. Its approach is to promote the public’s health through improving everyday human life: afford-able nutritious food, clean air, safe places where children can play, living wages, etc. It recognizes that addressing contemporary health challenges such as the prevalence of type 2 diabetes will take much more than good hospitals and public health departments.

Blending philosophy of science/medicine, public health ethics and history, this book offers a framework that explains, analyses and largely endorses the features that define this relatively new field. Presenting a philosophical perspective, Valles helps to clarify what these features are and why they matter, including: searching for health’s "upstream" causes in social life, embracing a professional commitment to studying and ameliorating the staggering health inequities in and between populations; and reforming scientific practices to foster humility and respect among the many scientists and non- scientists who must work collaboratively to promote health.

Featuring illustrative case studies from around the globe at the end of all main chapters, this radical monograph is written to be accessible to all scholars and advanced students who have an interest in health—from public health students to professional philosophers.

Table of Contents


Chapter 1: Blueprint of a philosophy of—and for—population health science

A brief overview


What is population health science?

Why write a book on philosophy of population health science?

What will this book accomplish?

What are the book’s philosophical methods and commitments?

What this book is not, and what it will not do


Section 1 What should health mean in population health science?

Chapter 2 A brief history of the social concept of health and its role in population health science


The biomedical model and the Biostatistical Theory of health

Population health as (metaphysically) social health

Health is (empirically) social

Conclusion: Moving toward a thoroughly social health concept of health

Case study: The Standing Rock Sioux Water Protectors

Chapter 3 Health as a life course trajectory of complete well-being in social context

Introduction: The many debates over health’s meaning

Life Course Theory

Life course lesson 1: Health is best understood as a lifelong phenomenon, not in time slices

Life course lesson 2: Population health and individual health are best understood as co-developing dynamically

The World Health Organization’s definition of health, not what it seems

The WHO definition of health is not an operationalized tool for health assessment; it is a toolbox that guides the gathering of tools

Making room for health pluralisms: metaphysical, empirical, ethical and methodological

Conclusion: An updated health concept for an expansive population health mission

Case Study: Addressing health disparities between Aboriginal Australians and settler Australians

Section 2 Which causes and effects matter most in population health?

Chapter 4 Expanding the boundaries of population health

Introduction: health as life course of complete well-being in social context calls for a broad health promotion mandate

Continuing from Chapter 3: ‘Health issues’ ≠ ‘healthcare issues’

"Boundary problem" problems

Political theory and population health

An unnecessary philosophical assumption: If X becomes a public health problem then it must be primarily or exclusively a public health problem

An incorrect empirical prediction: Broad conceptions of public health predictably lead to harms to the public health professions or to the populations they serve

The epistemic risks of erring on the side of wide vs. narrow boundaries for public health

Conclusion: Expanding philosophy of population health to catch up with the science and practice

Case Study: Global climate change

Chapter 5 Prioritizing the right population health causes and effects

Introduction: Addressing population health problems at the roots

"Fundamental-cause theory": the wrong name for the right approach

"Fundamental causes": Paramount importance because of a unique type of stability

What is and isn’t wrong with risk factors

Turning attention from "causes of cases" to "causes of incidence"

Philosophy of salutogenesis vs. philosophy of pathogenesis


Case study: Brazil’s AIDS response

Section 3 How can population health science better promote health equity?

Chapter 6 Managing the inevitable trade-offs in population health science practice


The problem of heterogeneity: Lumping vs. splitting in population health

The high risk approach vs. the population approach

Decentering the healthcare system to promote population health vs. expanding outward from the healthcare system

Evidence-based medicine vs. public health pragmatism


Case study: the heterogeneous health of migrants

Chapter 7 Ethics and Evidence in the Population Health Equity Debates

Introduction: Population health science and health equity

Health equity is built into population health science

The (real and imagined) consequences of an ambiguous understanding of "health equity"

Equitable health promotion and health governance

Hypothetical problems’ outsized influence in population health equity deliberations


Case study: Investigating racism and racial health disparities


Chapter 8 Humility as the way forward for population health science, and philosophy thereof

Introduction: A spirit of humility and collaboration

Embracing epistemic humility

Sectoral humility: Non-hierarchical intersectorality

Disciplinary Humility: Non-hierarchical interdisciplinarity

Population health science education for health professionals

Population health science education for all

Philosophy of population health science, from a position of service


About the Author

Sean A. Valles is Associate Professor, jointly appointed to Michigan State University’s Lyman Briggs College and Department of Philosophy, USA.

About the Series

History and Philosophy of Biology

This series explores significant developments in the life sciences from historical and philosophical perspectives. Historical episodes include Aristotelian biology, Greek and Islamic biology and medicine, Renaissance biology, natural history, Darwinian evolution, Nineteenth-century physiology and cell theory, Twentieth-century genetics, ecology, and systematics, and the biological theories and practices of non-Western perspectives. Philosophical topics include individuality, reductionism and holism, fitness, levels of selection, mechanism and teleology, and the nature-nurture debates, as well as explanation, confirmation, inference, experiment, scientific practice, and models and theories vis-à-vis the biological sciences.

Authors are also invited to inquire into the "and" of this series. How has, does, and will the history of biology impact philosophical understandings of life? How can philosophy help us analyze the historical contingency of, and structural constraints on, scientific knowledge about biological processes and systems? In probing the interweaving of history and philosophy of biology, scholarly investigation could usefully turn to values, power, and potential future uses and abuses of biological knowledge.

The scientific scope of the series includes evolutionary theory, environmental sciences, genomics, molecular biology, systems biology, biotechnology, biomedicine, race and ethnicity, and sex and gender. These areas of the biological sciences are not silos, and tracking their impact on other sciences such as psychology, economics, and sociology, and the behavioral and human sciences more generally, is also within the purview of this series.

Rasmus Grønfeldt Winther is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC), and Visiting Scholar of Philosophy at Stanford University (2015-2016). He works in the philosophy of science and philosophy of biology and has strong interests in metaphysics, epistemology, and political philosophy, in addition to cartography and GIS, cosmology and particle physics, psychological and cognitive science, and science in general. Recent publications include "The Structure of Scientific Theories," The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and "Race and Biology," The Routledge Companion to the Philosophy of Race. His book with University of Chicago Press, When Maps Become the World, is forthcoming.

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Subject Categories

BISAC Subject Codes/Headings:
SOCIAL SCIENCE / Sociology / General