Public Health Interventions: Global Problems, Local Solutions

Convenors: Sandra L. Trappen (Penn State University) & Zoe Meleo-Erwin (William Paterson University of New Jersey)


Problems in public health cut across traditional disciplinary divides and require increased efforts to coordinate research and communicate important findings. Key to the notion of what has been called “Public Health 3.0” (Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 2017) is the assertion that affected communities must not only have a voice in public health approaches but must in fact lead them. Public health officials increasingly acknowledge the importance of local communities and decision making. Further, there is a realization that successful public health approaches to problem solving will require public health workforces to “acquire and strengthen its knowledge base, skills and tools to meet the evolving challenges to population health, to be skilled at building strategic partnerships to bring about collective impact, to harness the power of new types of data, and to think and act in a systems perspective” (2017). In recognition of these developments, we propose a session seek research that helps demonstrate how critical ethnographic methods are vital to public health efforts to engage communities as active partners in problem solving.

Our proposed panel takes up the question of how critical ethnographic research methodologies can be used to complicate and extend standard understandings and approaches to key public health issues. We ask contributors to consider their fieldwork in light of at least one or more of the following research problematics: 1) how have public health interventions traditionally framed health, disease, and risk as this pertains to sexual and reproductive health, immigrant and refugee health, obesity, and addiction/drug problems and how might new insights be generated by ethnographic research attest to how this is changing? 2) how can ethnographic research help resolve the paradox, where the field of public health research has traditionally moved in the direction of understanding health, disease, and health disparities through an “upstream” social determinants of health lens and through the use of social ecological models, even as the the focus of education, treatment, and prevention remains centered on individual-level behavior change; and 3) how can ethnographic researchers effectively confront the fact that while public health as a discipline and practice has increasing embraced a mixed-methods approach, qualitative research has remained at best an adjunct to more quantitative investigations?

It is in recognition of these challenges that our panel aims to demonstrate the relevance of critical ethnographic methodologies (i.e. interviews with expert and patients, focused participant observation, and textual analysis) as a means to illuminate the ontological, epistemological, and structural foundations of key public health issues. We seek research that can demonstrate how such methodologies are fundamental to a health equity and social justice approach to population health, particularly when public the health needs of communities and populations must confront multiple and simultaneous challenges resulting from sensitive, stigmatized, and politicized populations who struggle with health issues in connection with sexuality, drug addiction, body weight, and immigration.

We would additionally like to encourage submissions from scholars who may be conducting qualitative public health research on COVID related issues as it affects their communities.

Open Questions

- How do individuals experience medical, scientific, and clinical discourses, and how do these discourses play out in and influence their selves, sense of embodiment, and social relationships?

- To what extent do public health approaches focusing on individual-level behavior change draw attention away from the need to address structural inequalities?

- How can ethnographic methods be used to illustrate the ways in which diverse individual risk factors are shaped by the larger community context as well as larger structural constraints – and synergistically intersect to produce ill health and death?

- How might public health education and awareness campaigns be improved through the use of qualitative methods?

- How can qualitative and ethnographic data meaningfully supplement the use of quantitative methods in public health research?

- Why are critical methodologies drawn from sociology, cultural studies, and other traditions vital to public health approaches to sensitive and highly stigmatized health issues and conditions?


Population health, community-engaged research, epistemology, public health campaigns, immigrant and refugee health, critical methodologies, social determinants of health, stigma, trauma and violence.


DeSalvo KB, Wang YC, Harris A, Auerbach J, Koo D, O’Carroll P. Public Health 3.0: A Call to Action for Public Health to Meet the Challenges of the 21st Century. Prev Chronic Dis 2017;14:170017. DOI:

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