Emory Report
March 26, 2007
Volume 59, Number 24

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March 26, 2007
'Inequality' conference asks tough questions on well-being

by carol clark

A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that the average early death rate in the United States increases every time you take a step down on the social ladder. The researchers found the same correlation in Britain to declining social status and early death, but in the United States, this premature death rate was even higher.

“It’s a very uncomfortable thing to think about,” said Carol Hogue, Jules and Deen Terry Professor of Maternal and Child Health and professor of epidemiology at Rollins School of Public Health. “We like to think that we’re a classless society, but we’re not. In fact, in addition to social classes, there are social castes in this country. Those castes have to do with how you look.”

A Department of Sociology conference, “The Effects of Inequality on Physical and Mental Well-Being,” will bring together researchers across disciplines to discuss the growing body of evidence linking health and social status. The conference is set for March 28–29, from 2 to 6 p.m., in the Jones Room of Woodruff Library.

“A lot of times we think our health is determined just by what we do and by our genetics. But we’re learning that where we are in the context of our social environment also affects our health,” said Hogue, who will speak at the conference on the impact of race-related stress on women’s health. “This is a rare opportunity for experts from the fields of sociology, medicine and behavioral health to come together to see the complete picture — or, at least, as much of that picture as we have now.”

The idea for the conference grew out of the Department of Sociology’s desire to contribute to Emory’s strategic plan. In particular, the department wanted to focus on the close connection between the race and difference, gender and health initiatives, said Robert Agnew, chair of the department.

“Inequality is a central concern in sociology, and we’d like to foster more interdisciplinary dialogue in this area,” he said. “At this conference, we’ll be looking at inequality broadly defined, especially race/ethnic-, class- and gender-based inequality.”

Inequality and health is an issue that goes beyond the concerns of minorities and marginalized people, Hogue said. “Why is our health poorer at every social level than the health of English men and women? It may be the fact that we’re unequal that makes us all a little more ill.”

Corey Keyes, associate professor in the Department of Sociology and the Rollins School of Public Health, will discuss “The Paradox of Race and Health.” His research indicates that although African Americans are faring worse than whites in terms of physical health, living markedly shorter lives on average, they are doing slightly better than whites when it comes to mental health.

“How does that happen?” mused Keyes, theorizing that the resilience required to withstand discrimination could somehow play a role. “It’s a mystery that needs to be better understood. I think society has something valuable to learn from it.”

The line-up of 10 conference speakers and panel discussions includes a range of experts from Emory and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, along with two out-of-town guests. David Williams, Florence Sprague Norman and Laura Norman Smart Professor of Public Health at the Harvard School of Public Health, will speak on “The Enigma of Racial Inequalities in Health: Social Determinants of Disease.” Peggy Thoits, Elizabeth Taylor-Williams Distinguished Professor of Sociology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, will give a talk titled: “Unexpected Biases in the Formal and Informal Labeling of Mental Illness by Social Status.”

Check the sociology Web site for the full schedule: www.sociology.emory.edu/pid/44.