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Under Your Skin: The Social Determinants of Health

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Course DatesWeeksMeeting TimesStatusInstructor(s)CRN
June 22, 2015 - July 10, 20153M-F 12:15-3:05POpenRobert Mayne10648

Course Description

Why do black men in the United States die nearly ten years earlier, on average, than white women? Can having overweight friends cause you to gain weight, independent of your own eating and exercise habits? Can stress from living in your neighborhood cause breast cancer? Increasingly, researchers are finding that the social worlds that we inhabit “get under our skin” in very real ways, determining much of the basic functioning of our bodies. This class will examine these social determinants of health from a sociological perspective, focusing on the mechanisms by which social networks, neighborhoods, and global systems of inequalities produce sick and healthy people.

This course will provide students an opportunity to think critically about the social world and its direct and indirect effects on individual health. We will focus on the basic concepts social scientists use to describe social inequalities in health, giving examples of research showing persistent social gradients in health outcomes. This course will be of interest to students who wish to pursue careers in public health, medicine, and social science.

We will begin with an overview of the basic theories social scientists use to describe and understand health inequalities. From there, each module will focus on one way social context determines health, resulting in health inequalities between and within countries, at the level of the urban neighborhood, and at the individual level.

Throughout the course, substantive concepts will be related to both the theoretical concepts introduced at the start of the course and the empirical methods that social scientists used to study these relationships. In particular, this course will provide a basic introduction creating and presenting informational maps using Geographic Information Systems (GIS). Students will be taught the basics of ArcGIS, the industry standard software for geographic research, and will use this tool to present their own original research on health disparities.

By the end of this course, students will be able to:

  • Describe mechanisms by which health may be impacted by the social environment at global, local, and individual levels.
  • Describe specific examples in which the social environment impacts health, citing the mechanisms and concepts that social scientists use to study these relationships.
  • Create maps showing the spatial relationships between disadvantage and health at the city level


Some basic experience with spreadsheets (Excel) and comfort with computers will be necessary for the GIS component.