Falling down the rabbit hole? Methodological, conceptual and policy issues in current health inequalities research (07/02/2022)
Persistent health inequalities pose a challenge to researchers and policymakers. Decades of research have illuminated mechanisms that underlie health inequalities, now we must move beyond these observations to enable policies that can reduce them. In this paper, we highlight tensions in the field of health inequalities research regarding the relationship between social determinants and health outcomes, and the effectiveness of welfare policies. We draw on recent evidence to analyse and discuss these areas of debate and provide insight into the evidence on causality, welfare systems and policies aiming to address the social determinants of health inequalities. First, we examine the evidence that inequalities in the social determinants of health are causally related to health inequalities. Second, we discuss whether more egalitarian social policies provide a solution to redressing health inequalities. In conclusion, we suggest that current debates around causal understandings risk sending the field down ‘rabbit holes’ that distract from solution. We argue that, if we combine epidemiological evidence with the broader canon of social science evidence, the case for causal inference is sufficiently strong to suggest we now need to focus on effectively supporting and promoting research-informed policy responses to health inequalities.