You are here: Home Research Lawrence Wallack Talking About Public Health: Developing America's "Second Language"
Document Actions

Talking About Public Health: Developing America's "Second Language"

by Lawrence Wallack, Regina Lawrence

The mission of public health—improving the health of populations—is difficult to advance in public discourse because a language to express the values animating that mission has not been adequately developed. Following on the work of Robert Bellah, Dan Beauchamp, and others, we argue that the first “language” of American culture is individualism.

A second American language of community—rooted in egalitarianism, humanitarianism, and human interconnection—serves as the first language of public health. These values resonate with many Americans but are not easily articulated. Consequently, reductionist, individualistic understandings of public health problems prevail.

Advancing the public health approach to the nation’s health challenges requires invigorating America’s second language by recognizing the human interconnection underlying the core social justice values of public health.

Acknowledgements and References


Work on this article was partly supported by a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Innovator’s Award to Lawrence Wallack. Also, the authors express their appreciation to Dan Beauchamp and to Richard Hofrichter, who reviewed an early version of this article and provided important guidance, and to the anonymous reviewers.


  1. Bellah RN, Madsen R, Sullivan WM, Swidler A, Tipton SM. Habits of the Heart. 2nd ed. Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press; 1996.
  2. Frank JW. The Determinants of Health: A New Synthesis. Curr Issues Public Health. 1995;1:233–240.
  3. Institute of Medicine. Promoting Health. Washington, DC: National Academy Press; 2000.
  4. McKinlay JB. The Promotion of Health Through Planned Sociopolitical Change: Challenges for Research and Policy. Soc Sci Med. 1993;36:109–117.
  5. McKinlay JB, Marceau L. To boldly go... Am J Public Health. 2000;90: 25–33.
  6. Beauchamp DE. Public Health as Social Justice. Inquiry. 1976;12:3–14.
  7. Robertson A. Health promotion and the common good: theoretical considerations. Crit Public Health. 1999; 9(2):117–133.
  8. Michael T, Ellis R, Wildavsky A. Cultural Theory. Boulder, Colo: Westview Press; 1990.
  9. Kingdon JW. America the Unusual. Boston, Mass: Worth Publishers; 1999.
  10. Lipset SM. Continental Divide. New York, NY: Routledge; 1991.
  11. Feldman S. Structure and consistency in public opinion: the role of core beliefs and values. Am J Political Sci. 1988;32:416–440.
  12. Wood G. The Radicalism of the American Revolution. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf; 1992.
  13. Sapiro V. The gender basis of American social policy. Political Sci Q. 1986;101(2):221–238.
  14. Weaver RK, Shapiro RY, Jacobs LR. The polls—trends: welfare. Public Opinion Q. 1995;59:606–627.
  15. Fighting Poverty in America: A Study of American Public Attitudes. Washington, DC: Center for the Study of Policy Attitudes; 1994.
  16. The Values We Live By: What Americans Want From Welfare Reform. New York, NY: Public Agenda; 1996.
  17. Feldman S, Steenburgen MR. The humanitarian foundation of public support for social welfare. Am J Polit Sci. 2001;45:658–677.
  18. Feldman S, Zaller J. The political culture of ambivalence: ideological responses to the welfare state. Am J Polit Sci. 1992;36:268–307.
  19. Institute of Medicine. The Future of Public Health. Washington, DC: National Academy Press; 1988.
  20. Lawrence RG. Framing obesity: the evolution of public discourse on a public health issue. Harvard Int J Press/Politics. 2004;9(3):56–75.
  21. Lakoff G. Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know that Liberals Don’t. Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press; 1996.
  22. Marmot M, Wilkinson RG. Social Determinants of Health. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press; 1999.
  23. Kawachi I, Kennedy BP, Wilkinson RG. Income Inequality and Health. New York, NY: The New Press; 1999. The Society and Population Health Reader; Vol 1.
  24. Wilkinson R. Unhealthy Societies: The Afflictions of Inequality. New York, NY: Routledge; 1996.
  25. Auerbach JA, Krimgold BK, eds. Income, Socioeconomic Status, and Health: Exploring the Relationships. Washington, DC: National Policy Association, Academy for Health Services Research and Health Policy; 2001.
  26. Beauchamp D. Community: the neglected tradition of public health. Hastings Center Rep. December 1985: 28–36.
  27. Glendon MA. Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Public Discourse. New York, NY: Free Press, 1991.
  28. Tronto J. Moral Boundaries: A Political Argument for an Ethic of Care. New York, NY, Routledge; 1993.
  29. Wallack L. The California Violence Prevention Initiative: advancing policy to ban Saturday night specials. Health Educ Behav. 1999;26:841–857.
  30. Wallack L, Lee A, Winett L. A decade of effort, a world of difference: the policy and public education program of the California Youth Violence Prevention Initiative. Report to The California Wellness Foundation. Woodland Hills, Calif: California Wellness Foundation; 2003.
  31. Kempton W, Boster JS, Hartley J. Environmental Values in American Culture. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press; 1999. 32. Mills CW. The Sociological Imagination. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 1959.
  32. Mills CW. The Sociological Imagination. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 1959.

Personal tools