Jenna Nobles, PhD
Correlation or causation: understanding the contextual determinants of health
Over the last several decades, our understanding of health predictors has broadened to include many “upstream” factors: features of the social, political, economic, and cultural context in which individuals are embedded. Identifying links between contextual characteristics and health must rely on the variation we can observe in existing populations; we cannot put most of these factors through the rigors of a randomized control trial. Scholars have understood this for years – and are often careful to note that when it comes to context, most studies can demonstrate important correlations but are limited with respect to establishing whether contextual factors cause better or worse health. Nevertheless, providing evidence for the existence of a causal link between contextual factors and individual health outcomes is crucial for at least two related reasons. One, we would like to understand social context as part of a system that produces health – much in the way that we think about the biological functioning of a human body. Two, a well-developed understanding of this system makes possible the development of effective health-related policy and intervention.
Jenna’s work as a Health & Society Scholar builds on existing literature to consider whether the use of interesting natural variation in population experiences can improve our understanding of the role of context in health. For example: Can the lifespan changes we observe when a country gains emancipation from outside rule tell us about the importance of political context for mortality? Does the destruction of community networks during a natural disaster allow us to estimate the role of social ties in psychological distress? When occupational hierarchies are rearranged in periods of economic collapse, can we learn about the link between status and physical functioning? Can systematic changes in labor migration patterns shed light on the importance of living arrangements for children’s development?
Jenna’s investigation of these questions uses population data from the United States, northern Europe, Indonesia, and several Latin American countries and includes collaborations with local scholars in Epidemiology, Psychology, Economics, Anthropology, and Public Policy. Jenna comes to UC-Berkeley and UC-San Francisco with training in Sociology and Demography from UCLA and will join the Sociology faculty at the University of Wisconsin, Madison in the Fall of 2009.