Culture and the social context of health inequalities

Carol L Mansyur, The University of Texas School of Public Health


There has been a great deal of interest and debate recently concerning the linkages between inequality and health cross-nationally. Exposures to social and health inequalities likely vary as a consequence of different cultural contexts. It is important to guide research by a theoretical perspective that includes cultural and social contexts cross-nationally. If inequality affects health only under specific cultural conditions, this could explain why some of the literature that compares different societies finds no evidence of a relationship between inequality and health in certain countries. A theoretical framework is presented that combines sociological theory with constructs from cultural psychology in order to identify pathways that might lead from cultural dimensions to health inequalities. Three analyses are carried out. The first analysis explores whether there is a relationship between cultural dimensions at the societal level and self-rated health at the individual level. The findings suggest that different cultural norms at the societal level can produce both social and health inequalities, but the effects on health may differ depending on the socio-cultural context. The second analysis tests the hypothesis that health is affected by the density of social networks in a society, levels of societal trust, and inequality. The results suggest that commonly used measures of social cohesion and inequality may have both contextual and compositional effects on health in a large number of countries, and that societal measures of social cohesion and inequality interact with individual measures of social participation, trust, and income, moderating their effects on health. The third analysis explores whether value systems associated with vertical individualist societies may lead to health disparities because of their stigmatizing effects. I test the hypothesis that, within vertical individualist societies, subjective well-being will be affected by a social context where competition and the Protestant work ethic are valued, mediated by inequality. The hypothesis was not supported by the available cross-national data, most likely because of inadequate measures, missing data, and the small sample of vertical individualist countries. The overall findings demonstrate that cultural differences are important contextual factors that should not be overlooked when examining the causes of health inequalities.

Subject Area

Social research|Public health

Recommended Citation

Mansyur, Carol L, "Culture and the social context of health inequalities" (2006). Texas Medical Center Dissertations (via ProQuest). AAI3259232.