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Beyond ‘beer, fags, egg and chips’? Exploring lay understandings of social inequalities in health

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This paper seeks to contribute to the limited body of work that has directly explored lay understandings of the causes of health inequalities. Using both quantitative and qualitative methodology, the views of people living in contrasting socio-economic neighbourhoods are compared. The findings support previous research in suggesting that lay theories about causality in relation to health inequalities, like lay concepts of health and illness in general, are multi-factorial. The findings, however, also illustrate how the ways in which questions about health and illness are asked shape people's responses. In the survey reported on here people had no problem offering explanations for health inequalities and, in response to a question asking specifically about area differences in health experience, people living in disadvantaged areas ‘constructed’ explanations which included, but went beyond, individualistic factors to encompass structural explanations that gave prominence to aspects of ‘place’. In contrast, within the context of in-depth interviews, people living in disadvantaged areas were reluctant to accept the existence of health inequalities highlighting the moral dilemmas such questions pose for people living in poor material circumstances. While resisting the notion of health inequalities, however, in in-depth interviews the same people provided vivid accounts of the way in which inequalities in material circumstances have an adverse impact upon health. The paper highlights ways in which different methodologies provide different and not necessarily complementary understandings of lay perspectives on the causes of inequalities in health.
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Keywords: area effects; health inequalities; individual behaviour; lay knowledge; moral identity; structural factors

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Institute for Health Research, Lancaster University 2: Formerly at Institute for Public Health Research and Policy, University of Salford 3: School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University 4: Social Care Institute for Excellence, London

Publication date: January 1, 2003

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