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Social contexts and health

Date: February 2016
Category: Report
Work programme:
Author: Sara Dodds

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This report provides a synthesis of our learning about social contexts and health. Social contexts can be understood as the relationships and networks of support that people experience, the interconnections within communities, and the involvement of people and communities in decisions that affect their lives.

Research has shown that these relationships and connections all have important influences on health in a range of ways. This review draws on ten plus years of outputs and events from the GCPH and GoWell to increase understanding how social contexts can help improve health and tackle health inequalities.

social contexts synthesis

This review emphasises the importance of facilitating the following social features, especially for those facing the greatest challenges: 

  • Social networks of family and friends are crucial and links to wider networks are also important for health.
  • Community cohesion (connections within a community and feelings of safety and belonging) is important for residents’ health and helps communities as a whole (e.g. in safeguarding services or responding to shocks).
  • Social participation (volunteering at or participating in projects, clubs, activities etc.) supports individual health and can enable connections within communities and improvements to community life.
  • Community empowerment processes (how residents are engaged and involved in decisions affecting their lives) and the changes that result are important for health. 

This social contexts review follows on from the synthesis of 10 years of GCPH evidence published in October 2014 which emphasised, in line with international evidence, the importance of economic, environmental and social factors on health.

In particular, the GCPH evidence base emphasised the role of four key areas: the economy, employment and poverty; early life experience; neighbourhood environments; and social contexts. Interacting with all of these, and having their own effect, are the services, interventions and approaches undertaken to improve outcomes for individuals and communities. The social contexts review highlights the importance of integrated actions across all of these areas to maximise the positive impact social contexts can have on health.

Download a leaflet summarising the synthesis.