Models of obesity

Social science and humanities (SSH) perspectives on models of obesity: Tracing obesities along and beyond the structures of research and policy 

Panel at ECO2015, Prague, 6-9 May 2015

This session explores how models of obesity come about in interdisciplinary research. The invited speakers will draw from on-going historical and anthropological inquiries into how obesity is modelled in situated contexts of research, intervention and political decision-making. Such modelling produces multiple pictures of obesity, or different obesities.

Three talks explore the many networks and relations through which different obesities are generated and negotiated. The session offers new avenues and conceptual terrains for interdisciplinary engagements between social science and humanities (SSH) and the life sciences.

The session outline included:

    1. Introduction: Models in obesity research (Geof Rayner)
    2. Political models (Stanley Ulijaszek & Amy McLennan, the Unit for Biocultural Variation and Obesity (Oxford))
    3. Historical models (Anne Katrine Kleberg, Governing Obesity, SAXO institute, University of Copenhagen))
    4. Research models (Line Hillersdal & Jonas Winther, Governing Obesity, Copenhagen Centre for Health Research in the Humanities, University of Copenhagen))
    5. Discussion: Implications for interdisciplinary engagements


Ulijaszek S and McLennan A. Political models: Set within Regulatory Frameworks and Ideologies

Obesity has been an object of considerable policy activity in high income countries in past decades. Most have placed responsibility on the individual. A notable outlier was the Foresight Report ‘Tackling Obesity: Future Choices’ because it reframed obesity as a complex problem that required multiple sites of intervention well beyond the range of personal responsibility. In this presentation we examine the complexification of obesity and how different political systems and welfare regimes frame obesity.


Kleberg AK.  Historical models: Normal weight, BMI and Obesity

Authors of historical articles in medical journals often state that the Body Mass Index (BMI) rightly ought to be called the Quetelet-Index to commemorate its originator. Lambert Adolphe Jacques Quetelet (1796-1874) applied statistical methods developed within astronomy to the social spheres of human lives in his quest for L’homme Moyen. Quetelet did not investigate obesity but he was amongst the first to suggest a concept of normal weight. In this presentation I explore Quetelet’s concept of normal weight and its somewhat sceptical reception by medical practitioners. Physicians of the time were not convinced that a statistical derived normal conveyed any information about health. This leads to issues of how the average and the normal historically have come to be interchangeable words and how statistical concepts such as normal weight are not just used as descriptive categories within medicine but are also used as a tool of self-practice in everyday lives.


Hillersdal L and Winther J. Research models: Moulds and figures in Collaborative Obesity Research

A novel trend within obesity research is to engage in interdisciplinary collaborations as a response to the increasing prevalence of obesity globally. Drawing from ethnographic fieldwork among two interdisciplinary groups of obesity researchers, this talk investigates how local configurations of research settings, funding criteria, academic affiliations and ambitions shape how obesity as a research phenomenon is imagined, organised and executed within the realm of politically charged research agendas. Proposing the metaphor of models as figures cast from a mould, we show how the conditions offered in the promotion and facilitation of interdisciplinarity curb rather than open up how obesity is made an object of intervention and study.

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