Social Epidemiology: Definition & Methods

Instructor: Yolanda Williams

Yolanda has taught college Psychology and Ethics, and has a doctorate of philosophy in counselor education and supervision.

Social epidemiology is a field concerned with how social conditions influence health. In this lesson you'll learn more about social epidemiology and the methods used in the field. At the conclusion you can test what you've learned by taking a quiz.


Tina is a graduate student who is studying public health. In her studies, Tina noticed that people with different social characteristics respond differently to HIV. More specifically, she found that individuals from backgrounds with higher education and income were more likely to survive HIV and receive better treatment. This made Tina curious about the relationship between social factors and other diseases, like brain cancer. One way in which Tina can answer these questions is by studying social epidemiology.


Epidemiology is a branch of study that deals with the patterns, causes, risk factors, and impacts of health-related events in particular populations. Epidemiology is important for several reasons. For example, epidemiologists identify risk factors associated with various diseases, provide evidence for medicines that work, describe health-related events and identify ways to contain them, and inform health policy. Epidemiology plays a vital role in keeping communities safe and healthy.

Social epidemiology is the subdivision of epidemiology that examines how social interactions and the combined activities of humans influence health. In other words, it looks at how social conditions affect our chances of living a healthy life. An underlying assumption in social epidemiology is that the way in which health and disease are dispersed among members of a community is a reflection of how advantages and disadvantages are dispersed in the community. Social epidemiology looks at the features and characteristics of a society and how these characteristics influence health on both an individual and a population level. It attempts to determine which of the society's characteristics influence the dispersion of disease and health and how they work.


Tina wants to examine how poverty and race influence how a person responds to brain cancer treatment. There are several methods that she and other social epidemiologists can use to answer this question.

Tina can create a survey that measures social characteristics such as age, gender, income, and education. A survey is a research tool that uses questions in order to obtain information about the people who complete them. Tina can compare the survey responses of people from different social backgrounds.

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