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Sociological Research on Health Disparities Is Core of NIH Conference

by Karina Havrilla, ASA Minority Affairs Program

Eight prominent sociologists were among the 23 panelists and moderators at a two-day conference hosted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The October conference, titled “Understanding and Reducing Health Disparities: Contributions from the Behavioral and Social Sciences,” was overbooked very early in its planning, with some 1,100 registrants, leaving many would-be attendees on a long waiting list.

The conference brought together speakers from various disciplines to discuss three areas of action influencing health disparities: policy, prevention, and health care. The goals of the conference were to highlight and demonstrate the actual and potential contributions of behavioral and social science research to NIH’s mission of reducing disparities in health; to identify areas requiring increased conceptual, empirical, and methodological development; and to recruit additional researchers to investigate health disparities. Nearly 60 research posters also were presented at the event, held on the NIH campus in the modern Natcher Conference Center.

Act One

Opening remarks were made by Deputy Director of NIH Raynard Kington, and the NIH Director of the National Center for Research on Minority Health and Health Disparities John Ruffin.

Following opening remarks, panelists had an opportunity to give a brief presentation of their research as it related to one of the three areas of action. Sociology was well represented at the conference, including sociologist David R. Williams, Harvard University. His panel presentation, “Behavioral and Social Science Evidence for Reducing Health Disparities through Policy,” offered an overview of findings from behavioral science research findings with implications for developing effective public policies. The behavioral and social science research links determinants of health to key pathways that policymakers need to address in order to reduce social inequalities in Americans’ health.

Act Two

The second day of the conference was when sociology truly had the opportunity to shine, given the steady stream of sociologist speakers. David Takeuchi, University of Washington, was the moderator for the morning panel sessions, which covered the topic of prevention. A sociologist by training, Takeuchi’s research interests are focused on the social, structural, and cultural contexts associated with different health outcomes, particularly among racial/ethnic minorities.

Sociologist Philip May, University of New Mexico, gave the first presentation of the day. His discussion, “Fetal Alcohol Syndrome among American Indians, Italians, and South Africans: Disparate Risks, Different Prevalence, and Prevention,” looked at three at-risk populations to compare and contrast the rates, effects, and severity of fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) on children, while also studying the maternal risk factors for producing FAS children in these regions of the world. Based on his research findings, he concluded that through knowledge and understanding of these populations, prevention methods for FAS can be designed and implemented.


The afternoon panels focused on health care and were moderated by sociologists Peter Messeri, Columbia University, and Lee Hargraves, University of Massachusetts. In a panel on social structural and economic influences, Bernice Pescosolido, Indiana University, presented a paper titled, “Cultural Influences as the Structure and Content of Social Networks, Large and Small.” Her presentation focused on the Network Episode Model (NEM) as a means to conceptualize the dynamic, cultural processes underlying health disparities by focusing on the resources, information, and beliefs that are embedded in social interactions with others, including large institutions.

Howard Waitzkin, Professor of Sociology, Family and Community Medicine, and Internal Medicine at the University of New Mexico, took attendees back to the historical roots of research on health disparities with his presentation, “Social Structural and Economic Influences on Health Care Disparities: 1 ½ Centuries of Forgetting and Remembering.” After reviewing the early work in the field, he critically described the more recent findings in this area. He followed with a discussion of the “unthinkable” implications for research and possible intervention efforts on policy changes at the social structural and economic levels.


The capstone presentation was given by sociologist and psychologist James S. Jackson, Director of the Program for Research on Black Americans and Senior Research Scientist at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan. Jackson highlighted the themes of the conference and summarized its findings. He concluded that “disparities in physical and mental health statuses and services do exist,” although we do not know why. When faced with stressful life conditions, different groups resort to different behavioral coping strategies in order to preserve their mental health. However, many of these coping strategies lead to physical health disparities. Jackson used the consumption of comfort foods, alcohol, nicotine, and/or drugs as examples of behaviors some groups use to relieve stress, which also negatively affect their physical health. Jackson, and the other presenters, left attendees with thoughts on what the causes of health disparities are and how we should address these issues in the public policy realm in order to effect needed improvements in Americans’ well being.

For more information, see the conference website at