Power and the people's health

Sharon Friel, Belinda Townsend, Matthew Fisher, Patrick Harris, Toby Freeman, Fran Baum

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


    Public policy plays a central role in creating and distributing resources and conditions of daily life that matter for health equity. Policy agendas have tended to focus on health care delivery and individualised interventions. Asking why there is a lack of policy action on structural drivers of health inequities raises questions about power inequities in policy systems that maintain the status quo. In this paper we investigate the power dynamics shaping public policy and implications for health equity. Using a Health Equity Power Framework (HEPF), we examined data from 158 qualitative interviews with government, industry and civil society actors across seven policy case studies covering areas of macroeconomics, employment, social protection, welfare reform, health care, infrastructure and land use planning. The influence of structures of capitalism, neoliberalism, sexism, colonisation, racism and biomedicalism were widely evident, manifested through the ideologies, behaviours and discourses of state, market, and civil actors and the institutional spaces they occupied. Structurally less powerful public interest actors made creative use of existing or new institutional spaces, and used network, discursive and moral power to influence policy, with some success in moderating inequities in structural and institutional forms of power. Our hope is that the methodological advancement and empirical data presented here helps to illuminate how public interest actors can navigate structural power inequities in the policy system in order to disrupt the status quo and advance a comprehensive policy agenda on the social determinants of health equity. However, this analysis highlights the unrealistic expectation of turning health inequities around in a short time given the long-term embedded power dynamics and inequities within policy systems under late capitalism. Achieving health equity is a power-saturated long game.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)1-12
    JournalSocial Science and Medicine
    Publication statusPublished - 2021


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