New Durham Health and Social Theory Website

I am happy to say that the health and social theory group in the Sociology Department at Durham University has launched a new website.  On it you can find out about our latest research, key themes, and an overview of different staff (particularly for post-graduate students thinking about doing their doctorate or post-doctoral research at Durham).   


We also have a BLOG!!!!  To read out Blob, CLICK HERE


Is Public Health Ready for Complexity?

I want to thank FUSE  -- the Centre for Translational Research in Public Health -- for the opportunity to present a brief overview of the value of the complexity sciences for public health (and, in turn the value of public health for complexity science!!!) on 14 February 2019 at Newcastle University.

For those in attendance, here is a LINK TO THE PRESENTATION.  Also, more generally for readers, here are the main six points I made, which I hope others find useful in advancing the usage of the complexity sciences in public health.


Public health, presently, is at a difficult crossroads.  Its massive success in making the world a healthier place has led to a global embrace of its incredible insights; but still, the challenges currently faced have not given in so easily, as they are deeply entrenched complex problems -- or, alternatively, what are more generally referred to as wicked problems!  ~The global spread of infectious disease; an exponentially growing (or, alternatively, greying) population throughout many parts of the world; the negative impact ecological upset is having on climate and health; urbanization and the development of mega cities and metropolitan regions; the increasing costs of health and healthcare; air pollution; the opiod epidemic; and so forth.

Still, despite this increasing complexity, public health has been rather resistant to making the shift, falling back on tried-and-true ways of thinking about and modelling public health issues.  This is particularly true when it comes to the harsh realities of getting funded or published!!!!!  This needs to change!  The challenge, however, is how?

Here are, in my mind, six things that public health researchers and practitioners can do to make more efective usage of the complexity sciences and advance the usage of these ideas across the field:

Six ways to advance the study of complexity in public health

There are six key issues that public health needs to address to move forward regarding the issues of complexity:

  • 1. Public health is in a difficult position: it realizes its work is more complex, but it is struggling to embrace the tools and concepts of complexity science and computational modelling, as it means doing things differently. 
    • This is particularly problematic in terms of funding streams and publishing in journals.
    • The only way forward, then, is to get on with it and actually start funding and publishing such work.  High risk can lead to high reward! 
  • 2. Related, the best way forward is for public health to employ a mixed-methods approach, as most public health issues require more than one method, including computational modelling. 
    • This includes embracing the old and the new, particularly in terms of complex networks, machine intelligence, participatory systems mapping, qualitative comparative analysis (QCA), and agent-based modelling.
  • 3. Public health needs to adopt a critical approach to complexity, as not all methods or theories are equally useful.  In other words, the advance of complexity thinking in public health has to be more than the simple application of hard science methods. 
    • For example, while complex network analysis is powerful, it has significant limits.
  • 4. Public health also needs to develop its theoretical and conceptual understanding of public health topics as complex.   This is also true in terms of policy evaluation.
  • 5. Public health needs to recognise the important role it plays – both in terms of theory and practical experience – in the development of the complexity sciences, as most of these scholars are trained in other fields.   Practitioner expertise, combined with the latest advances in computational methods, will go a long way to improving health.  It cannot, however, just be one or the other. 
  • 6. Finally, public health needs to adopt a case-based approach to modelling its various complex topics, as health (be it an individual or population) is about cases. 
    • In turn, it needs to move away from the strict study of variables and variable-based statistics.
    •  Statistics remains very important for complexity modelling; but variables need to be attached to context and cases and their various path-dependent trajectories.
    • Related, the field needs to shift to modelling multiple case-based trajectories, rather than designing a single model. 


Review: The Globotics Upheaval: Globalization, Robotics and the Future of Work by Richard Baldwin

There is an interesting new book out by Richard Baldwin, titled appropriately enough, THE GLOBOTICS UPHEAVAL: Globalization, Robotics and the Future of Work.

Here is a quick summary of the book, as provided at the Oxford University Press website, Baldwin's publisher for the book:
  • Compelling analysis of how a new form of globalization will combine with software robots to disrupt service-sector and professional jobs in the same way automation and trade disrupted manufacturing jobs in the past
  • Puts today's disruption in the context of two historical cycles where technological impulses produced economic transformations, upheavals, backlashes, and resolutions
  • Provides a concise overview of what types of jobs will be affected by software robots and pervasive translation that open new opportunities for outsourcing to tele-migrants
  • Argues persuasively that future jobs will be more human and involve more face-to-face contact since software robots and tele-migrants will do everything else

Globotics is not new

While I found the book interesting, I found many of its arguments (as in the case of telecommuting) simplistic and rather problematic.  Also, the wider argument it makes about technology is not new. In fact, the argument has already been made in globalisation studies, sociology and political science, and in a much more developed and sophisticated way.  And it is this later point that I want to focus on here:

In such fields as sociology, for example, one can go all the way back to C. Wright Mill's and his famous White Collar to find prescient prognoses about the future of middle-class work in light of forthcoming advances in technology.  Perhaps, though, the more well-known intellectual timeline, which I regularly teach students -- albeit highly abridged here and therefore, in many ways, wrong! -- runs as follows:
  • First  there is the whole literature on social class, going back to the 1800s -- which was largely a reaction to shifts in technology, particularly the emergence of industrialization.
  • Okay, so that literature is a bit wide.  But, moving along to the 1970s, there is post-industrialization, as outlined in such works as Daniel Bell's The Coming of Postindustrial Society
  • As post-industrialization spreads, one needs to then take into consideration the work of Immanuel Wallerstein and world system theory, which outlines the historical advance of globalisation into contemporary times.
  • From here one moves on to the world of Manuel Castells and others (Giddens, Held, etc) on global network society and the more recent advances in globalisation.
  • In turn, one moves to the work of Sylvia Walby and Patricia Hill Collins and others (e.g., intersectionality theory) on the inequality produced by globalisation, relative to issues such as ethnicity, social class and gender.
  • From here, one can move on to other well-known 'popular' reviews of globalisation, which address the same topics as Baldwin. Of these, one of the more popular is Thomas Friedman's Hot, Flat and Crowded
  • Then, intersecting with this literature are other related areas of study:
Again, this list would most likely be developed differently by others.  And there are a variety of other literature that I would include if I was being thorough.  But, it does get to the basic point: we have been aware for some time that globalisation and the advance of its global socio-cybernetic infrastructure are profoundly changing the nature of work across all levels of global society.

Still, Globotics makes a key point

Still, despite the significant problems with his argument -- including the need to acknowledge this wider literature -- Baldwin makes a key point, which I sought to articulate in, The Defiance of Global Commitment.

His point can be developed as follows:

In many ways, the current backlash against our global commitments to one another, particularly across western society, has very much to do with the failure of public policy to adequately address the negative impact that post-industrialization and globalisation have had on the working and middle classes.  All of which has helped to fuel the negative psychology that has become part of our political discourse.

Now, as technology advances, this negative impact will be more concretely experienced by the professional classes.  And, it will not just be in terms of their work lives.  Given the current impact that technological advance is having on income and salaries, it will also lead to problems regarding retirement, healthcare, housing, social entitlements, the cost of living and so forth -- all of which will be further felt given that so many western societies are greying and getting older.

In short, one can expect that the Globotics Upheaval, if not managed through effective public policy and rigorous democratic debate (both within and amongst the countries of the world) will further incite rather than reduce the current negative psychology that is becoming more widespread.  And, this is a serious concern, as this negative psychology is getting in the way of us making the sorts of global commitments that we, as a global society, so desperately need to embrace if we are to make good on the complex global social problems we presently face.

And, it is for such reasons that the wider literature on globalisation (even if ignored by the pop press) remains very important, primarily because it gives us a context for having these much-needed discussions and reminding us that the problems we presently face are not new.  In fact, like Baldwin, other academics have been saying it for a while now.