Epidemiology is the study of the patterns, causes, and effects of both health and disease in a population. This science is the very foundation of public health, shaping policy and practice in preventative healthcare. Social epidemiology is the branch of this particular science that examines the social determinants of health in a population. One of the basic assumptions of social epidemiology is that the distribution of advantages or disadvantages in society (socio-economic status, SES) is a reflection of the distribution of health and disease.
One of the most famous examples of social epidemiology was the British Whitehall Study, a ten-year long longitudinal study of male civil servants, which discovered an inverse correlation between social class and health outcomes. In other words, men at the lower rungs of society were far more likely to develop coronary artery disease and other health-problems when compared to their more upper class counterparts.
The relationship between one’s social class and health outcomes has been a major source of research in social epidemiology. While several theories have emerged to explain lower SES with higher mortality rates, scientists have yet to fully understand why this is the case. In searching for an answer, social epidemiologists are focusing on four major concepts: the bio-psychosocial paradigm, population perspective, multilevel analysis, and the significance of theory.