The Sage Dictionary of Health and Society

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The project of writing a specialist dictionary is an ambitious one: not only must an author have sufficient expertise to represent accurately the disciplinary terrain, but there must also exist sufficient disciplinary consensus as to what that terrain is and how it fits within, beside and overlaps with other disciplines. Accordingly, White has ‘attempted to show how critical medical anthropologists, sociologists, historians and philosophers of medicine use words to discuss healthcare and healing systems’ (2006:vii). Part of his mapping exercise includes differentiating sociologically informed terms and concepts from those used in psychology, sociobiology and medicine. Such reference works must necessarily provide simplified, condensed accounts of terms which are often highly contested, whose meaning may change over time, and are deployed differently by various specialist subcultures.White is a formidable player within sociology of health whose significant contribution over the past several decades has helped shape the field, particularly within Australia. As with most influential figures, he is also partisan, holding clearly and frequently expressed opinions which locate him within the contemporary critical landscape. White’s intellectual biography is plainly evident within his choice of topics and definitions (as he acknowledges in the introduction), and the strengths of the dictionary parallel his own. He works present a rigorous treatment of methodological concepts, the history of sociology (including a comprehensive use of historical case studies and references), the sociology of scientific and medical knowledge, authors, and debates that contribute to an anti-realist critique of society. Those familiar with White’s work will also have no difficulty picking up his scepticism towards the quantitative end of the social sciences, and his concern regarding the social organisation of medical profession and its epistemological foundations.When writing a reference work such as a dictionary, the ability to construct accurate and noncontroversial material is paramount. The vast majority of White’s definitions are exactly that: informative, straightforward, concise and engaging. There is, however, the occasional term whose definition is limited or otherwise inadequate. For example, he defines ‘standpoint epistemology’ as ‘A position in feminist theories of knowledge that argues the social position of the knower is embedded in what is known’ (2006:204), and goes on to provide a short elaboration. Whilst it is perfectly accurate that standpoint epistemology has had a significant influence on feminism, this definition fails to acknowledge its philosophical origin in the works of Hegel, and its influence on a range of antihegemonic social theorises and discourses such as Marxism and post-colonialism. Unfortunately (and unfairly), these intermittent lapses left me frustrated and yearning for a more detailed and comprehensive reference work than I’m sure White ever intended this text to be.None-the-less, much of White’s commentary combines sophisticated and well-articulated summaries which challenge a reader to think beyond the commonly used meanings of words and towards understanding how they are used by critical social theorists. His intended readers (from the humanities and social sciences), will have no trouble carrying out the intellectual manoeuvres necessary to locate his definitions within broader political, historical, and cultural debates. I am however, less confident this will also be the case for the large number of undergraduate nursing, medical or other health science students for whom sociology of health is now compulsory, or for health science academics seeking to introduce a ‘qualitative’ element into their work.