Sociomedical Sciences: Mission and History
The mission of the Department of Sociomedical Sciences is to foster an understanding of public health as embedded in particular social, cultural, economic, and political contexts.
In giving primacy to the theoretical and historical framings and foundations of public health problems and practice, the Department provides an intellectual space for the systematic discussion of tension and diversity within the field; it fosters critical analysis of central public health challenges and fresh ways to meet them.
In 1968 the Columbia University School of Public Health became the first institution in the country to offer a graduate degree in the social sciences with a focus on health. What began as a collaborative research project in 1956 involving a physician, an epidemiologist, and a sociologist, evolved over a decade's time into a formal doctoral program run jointly with the core disciplines in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
Dr. Jack Elinson, the first divisional head, coined the term "sociomedical science" to incorporate the social sciences of sociology, anthropology, economics, history, political science, and psychology into a multidisciplinary study of health and medicine.
From the mid-1950s through the formal establishment of Sociomedical Sciences in 1968, Columbia University's School of Public Health represented the vanguard of the field in bringing the social sciences to bear on public health problems. A hallmark of the Department in its formative years was a commitment to reaching out to and understanding people within their communities. Thus, from the outset, the Department was informed by the understanding that disease is socially produced. This philosophical orientation strengthened as Sociomedical Sciences expanded its professional and disciplinary scope.
The Department's greatest strength today is its capacity to conduct interdisciplinary health research on leading public health problems, particularly those which disproportionately affect the poor and disenfranchised. At the broadest level, faculty members taking a theoretical and structural approach seek to understand the social production and determinants of infectious, chronic, and environmental disease as well as psychological well-being and health behaviors. Those focusing on policy analysis and development emphasize the history and politics of far-reaching social policy as it involves citizens and the state.
Faculty centrally involved in program development and evaluation are deeply engaged with the dynamics of community and local contexts, often viewing health within an ecological framework. Cross-cutting themes include:
- the interplay of structural factors and agency and their intersections with gender, sexuality, race, and class;
- the ways in which health is shaped by policy and its historical development;
- cultural underpinnings of health beliefs and behaviors; and
- rapid urbanization and globalization.
All of the major schools of public health now stress the social determinants of health and offer programs in the behavioral and social sciences. However, the Department of Sociomedical Sciences stands out in the depth and breadth of its emphasis on the cultural, social, environmental, and, indeed, political forces that produce health and disease in different historical contexts.