The field of public health has primarily thought about improving health by making changes for individuals. We try to get individual people to quit smoking, make dietary changes to combat obesity, and start using condoms or other safer sex practices to limit exposure to sexually transmitted infections (STIs). However, all of these interventions focus only on changes that individual people are supposed to make. They don’t think about barriers that impact an individuals ability to make these changes or other factors that could be affecting, positively or negatively, the health of individuals.
In thinking about public health interventions, we should think about a multi level analysis, including the micro level (individual), the meso level (interactional, community), and the macro level (institutional, structural). Factors at each of these levels can positively and negatively impact health; however, by only looking at the individual (the micro level), we miss a significant portion of the picture in terms of health, especially when we start thinking about health disparities.
Lisa Bowleg (2017) argues that this represents an epistemology of ignorance, specifically that the focus on the individual and on health as a characteristic solely of the individual (a very neoliberal position), “obscure[s] the role of social–structural factors (e.g., political, economic, institutional discrimination) that constrain the health of historically marginalized individuals, communities, and societies” (678). She continues to argue that “[e]pistemologies of ignorance illustrate that willful ignorance is functional (Alcoff, 2007; Mills, 1997, 2007). Neglecting the historical legacy of how race (as well as the other marginalized social positions that intersect with race) has structured social inequality for people of color in the United States serves to center the health experiences of White people as normative, “color blinds” White privilege to highlight positive health outcomes among White people as the product of their individual actions, and reifies negative stereotypes about the “irresponsible” health behaviors of people of color (Bowleg et al., 2017).” From a political perspective, she argues that this focus on the individual in public health, and in other spheres, limits the political imperative and pressure to conduct research and enact laws that would address the social-structural factors in order to alleviate health disparities.
Bowleg, L. (2017). Towards a Critical Health Equity Research Stance: Why Epistemology and Methodology Matter More Than Qualitative Methods. Health Educ Behav, 44(5), 677-684. doi:10.1177/1090198117728760