The IAPHS Blog is a virtual community that keeps population health professionals connected and up to date on the latest population health news, policy, controversies, and relevant research from multiple fields.
Merlin Chowkwanyun is the Donald H. Gemson Assistant Professor of Sociomedical Sciences at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. His work studies the history of public health, with a focus on environmental health regulation, politics and activism, racial inequality, and local-level forces.
Please share how your work relates to the issues and concerns that are emerging as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
I just finished a book called All Health Politics is Local: Battles for Community Health in the Mid-Century United States, which will be out next year with UNC Press. The book argues that too much public health analysis is done from a very macro-level, usually national studies of federal policies or aggregate secondary dataset analysis. These have enormous value. But they can also sideline the exact dimension of life where public health is most directly experienced and where policies’ fortunes and enactment are determined. That would be the local level, where “the block and neighborhood” provide “the most tangible experiences and ties of daily life,” to quote the political scientist Ira Katznelson.
Instead of writing a national-level history, I looked at six different controversies over medical-care allocation and environmental health in four unique locales where these have been important issues: Los Angeles, New York City, Cleveland, and the Central Appalachian area. Local idiosyncrasies – political machines, economic vitality (or lack of), racial politics, neighborhood configurations, and grassroots traditions, among others — played a huge role in determining how a public health episode played out, for better or for worse. Smog control in Los Angeles, for example, has had a lot of buy-in from not just people we’d call environmentalists but also the business community, in large part because the recreation and tourism industries depend a lot on a pristine environment. By contrast, in Central Appalachia, attempts to curtail the coal industry failed because so many interests in the region were embedded in the coal economy. The local context made the difference in both cases.
So what’s this have to do with COVID-19? Like many scholars of health, at first, I feared: nothing at all! I don’t have any contagious disease in my book at all. But it’s become ever more clear how important local difference is in how the Covid-19 response has played out. It’s true that federal inaction and dithering haven’t helped at all. But ultimately, just like in the 1918 flu epidemic, it’s large variation among states, and really, local counties and municipalities that has determined why the virus has come under control in some places but has continued wreaking havoc elsewhere. Resistance in local pockets like Orange County has really hampered otherwise sound state-level policies in California. COVID-19 really underscored for me the importance of local texture on health politics.
Christy L. Erving is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at Vanderbilt University. They joined IAPHS in 2015. Learn more about Christy on her website and follow her on twitter: @ChristyLErving
Tell us a little about yourself, where are you from, where did you go to graduate school, what makes you jump out of bed each morning?
I was born and raised in Dallas, Texas. After completing a bachelor’s degree in Sociology and Hispanic Studies at Rice University in Houston, Texas, I attended graduate school at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. After completing my graduate studies, I had the amazing opportunity to work for two years at University of Wisconsin-Madison as a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health & Society Scholar. I enjoy the multifaceted nature of the work that I do as an academic, so some days I’m motivated to deliver a lecture to my undergraduate students, while other days I’m excited to re-engage with a research paper I’ve been working on, or meeting with doctoral students to discuss their intellectual ideas and curiosities.
How do you define yourself as a population health professional?
As a whole my research employs quantitative methods to explore how race, ethnicity, immigrant status, and gender interact to produce differentials in a variety of health outcomes. I am formally trained as a sociologist, with subfield emphases in medical sociology, mental health, race/ethnicity, and social psychology in particular. However, I began to expand my intellectual identity during my post-doc years at UW-Madison. Now, I certainly consider myself a population health scientist, and my work seeks to thoughtfully integrate a variety of disciplinary perspectives that will help us more comprehensively understand how social disparities in health are produced and maintained.
At our 2019 Conference in Seattle, Dr. Michael McGinnis was presented with the inaugural J. Michael McGinnis Excellence in Leadership Award. In accepting this award he shared his thoughts on the value of IAPHS and its members to population health. As we begin to gear up for our 2020 conference (abstracts are due March 9), we asked Dr. McGinnis to share these thoughts on our blog.
Creating a Culture of Health by doing research differently. Sarah Gollust explains how the RWJF Interdisciplinary Research Leaders program makes it happen.
Did you catch these articles? David Kindig highlights some research you might have missed, including about the Population Health Performance Index, health outcome trusts, health investment benchmarks, and more.
How can we incorporate climate change into population and public health education curricula? Here’s part two in our series from Julie Becker.
Where and how to intervene to reduce disparities and inequalities is not a straightforward question. Elaine Hernandez offers some insight.