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Aletta Jacobs School of Public Health

Together for more healthy years
Research Concepts and Cultures of Health

Concepts and Cultures of Health

Defining health is no easy task. History shows that concepts of health have been discussed since Antiquity (at least in Western medicine and philosophy). Different (Western and non- Western) cultures have very different understandings of health. Close to home GP’s and medical specialists have to deal with a sharp demarcation between ‘objective’ health and health as it is experienced by patients. Yet, despite the impossibility of finding a balanced definition that works for everyone, it is important to come up with concepts of health that include cultural factors and environmental issues. This is important because our understanding of ‘health’ gives direction to medicine and health policies in practice.

What is health?

This leads to the following methodological questions guiding the method Concepts and Cultures of Health:

  • How do we decide on a ''working definition'' of health, given the ever-shifting concepts and cultures of health?
  • How can analyses of the philosophical, historical, moral and political motivations underlying wellbeing and healthy ageing mechanisms be made operational in practice?
  • How can we productively take into account the “people’s perspective”?

Health & humanities

‘Health’ is a relative term. It is rooted in cultural, historical, philosophical, religious and societal practices and ideas. For this reason, the success of health interventions depends on a thorough understanding of these decidedly non-medical factors. The current emphasis on lifestyle medicine offers a case in point. Historical research has shown that from the Ancient Greeks the Hippocratic non-naturals (the environmental factors outside the body) clean air, food, exercise, sleep, detox and emotional balance, have always been co-defined by culture.

Bottom-up approaches

In addition to adopting the humanities as a methodological angle through which we can deal with health issues, we also emphasise the importance of bottom-up approaches rooted in ethnographic research. For instance, the capability approach focuses on the choices that people have to transform the opportunities that underlie their health and wellbeing into valued outcomes. In addition, it sheds light on what enables or hinders this translation. Such an approach will benefit from a ''people's perspective'' and will help address issues of inequality and inequity. This is important because traditional health programmes often fail in reaching the most vulnerable groups in society. This approach will go beyond non-medical factors that lead to wellbeing, and call for multi-sectoral interventions.

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