Book Brief: Contested Illnesses: Citizens, Science, and Health Social Movements

Phil Brown, Rachel Morello-Frosch, Stephen Zavestoski, and the Contested Illnesses Research Group
University of California Press (December 2011)
ISBN 9780520270213
352 pages

In Contested Illnesses, Phil Brown, Rachel Morello-Frosch, Stephen Zavestoski, and the Contested Illnesses Research Group look at health and disease through the lens of politics and science. Geared towards an audience familiar with health social movements, the book delves deep into embodied health movements, qualitative methods of research, scientific analysis, and new approaches to ethnography.

The authors argue for a new interdisciplinary approach and collaboration when dealing with health social movements, especially in instances of contested illnesses where there is an intersection of socioeconomic underlying issues and a disconnected scientific community.  As they explain, health social movements include the efforts to improve access and quality of health care, to reshape the public health and medical community perspective, and to “eliminate persistent health inequalities based on race, ethnicity gender, class, or sexuality.”

In support of the collection of qualitative data through surveys and narratives, the authors provide and analyze several case studies where science, public health, politics, and environmental issues have collided. Each case study brings a different issue to the table, demonstrating, for example, the successful partnership of researchers, state agency personnel, and community members or the clash between labor activists and environmentalists. These chapters add weight to the authors’ arguments, contrasting substantive examples of conflict and collaboration in dealing with health social movements. In addition, the ethics, implications, and restrictions of biomonitoring studies and community-based participatory research are developed in the last few chapters, providing a full spectrum of topics.

Those interested in a different perspective on health justice, especially in regards to environmental health, will find this book full of information and ideas on how to change this field. By engaging methodology from a variety of disciplines, the authors make a well-backed case for why health social movements truly involve a wide range of players from scientific and public health communities, as well as those in social justice and policy.

– By HHR intern Kathy Wang