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The emergence of a ‘dose–response’ analogy in the health improvement domain of public health: a critical review

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Public Health specialists have increasingly deployed the concept of ‘dose–response’ in areas such as diet (‘five-a-day’), alcohol (‘21 weekly units’) and physical activity (‘150 minutes of weekly activity’). Using these examples and a case study that sought to establish an optimal dose of physical activity for mental health gain, this article offers a critical assessment of the nature, robustness and function of ‘dose’ in public health. Drawing on a ‘sociology of knowledge’, the article argues that dose–response can best be considered an analogy that does not necessarily translate favourably from its original expression in toxicology to some public health domains – an over-extended analogy. Rather than having technical robustness, its attractiveness and utility is seen to lie in it possessing ‘cultural capital’, here, the ability to link behavioural concerns to clinical practice, to simplify complex ideas and to act as a regulatory form of behavioural governance. The article is skeptical of further empirical pursuits in identifying optimal doses and offers an alternative course for public health framing.
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Keywords: critique; sociology of health; theory

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Lecturer Health & Social Studies, University of Glasgow, School of Interdisciplinary Studies, Dumfries Campus Scotland, UK

Publication date: December 1, 2012

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