Jo C. Phelan Ph.D.

Department of Sociomedical Sciences
Columbia University
Email: Discipline: Sociology Expertise: Health Care Inequalities, Mental Health

Investigator Award
The Concept of Fundamental Causes in Explaining Social Inequities in Health
Award Year: 1995 Drs. Phelan and Link believe that certain social conditions, such as socioeconomic status (SES), may be fundamental social causes of health and disease. Their health and policy relevance which involve access to resources such as money, knowledge, power, prestige and the social connections that determine the extent to which people are able to avoid risks for morbidity and mortality are explored. The project elaborates beyond the initial focus on SES, by incorporating theory on social capital, social class, power, and prestige. It also examines the social patterning of disease by race, ethnicity, gender, age, and marital status. A case study approach is used to assess the validity of the concept, looking at whether fundamental social causes have a persistent effect on health despite changes in risk factors, diseases, and interventions. The issue of whether reducing inequality in resources can be expected to improve overall health in a population or merely to redistribute it, is also explored.


Jo C. Phelan is professor of sociomedical sciences at the Mailman School of Public Health. She received her Ph.D. in sociology from the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Her research focuses on social inequalities, including objective conditions of inequality and social psychological factors that contribute to and result from those conditions. Her current research interests include socioeconomic disparities in health and mortality and public attitudes and beliefs about mental illness, especially the potential impact of the genetics revolution on those attitudes.