Unequal Biology: What Can Anthropometric Measures Tell Us about Health Inequality among Racial and Social Groups in History

AHA Session 219
Saturday, January 7, 2017: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Centennial Ballroom A (Hyatt Regency Denver, Third Floor)
Amílcar E. Challú, Bowling Green State University
The Unequal Nature of Shifting Growth: The Growth Pattern of British Children, 1850–1975
Eric Schneider, London School of Economics and Political Science
Health Inequality in Latin America since 1950
Amílcar E. Challú, Bowling Green State University
Inequality in Sickness and Health in Mexico, 1850–2000
Moramay Lopez-Alonso, Rice University
The Audience

Session Abstract

Historians are increasingly interested in health inequality. Three factors are driving this interest. First, through diligent effort, scholars have reconstructed general trends in mortality, nutrition, and anthropometric measures (height, weight and body mass) over time in both developed and developing countries (Floud et al., 2011). Thus, historians have been looking to expand upon these contributions by looking at more micro-level evidence. Second, the rise of the ‘big data’ and computer-intensive statistical tools has allowed for the construction and linkage of a vast number of quantitative datasets that can analyse health at the individual level using more precise characteristics than were possible in the past. Finally, historians and social scientists are interested in historical health inequality as a way to understand the origins of modern inequality and its persistence to the present day. The work of Thomas Picketty and last year’s Nobel Prize-awardee in Economics, Angus Deaton, illustrate the advantages of an empirically based, long-term and global approach to the study of inequality. They also signal an opportunity for historians to engage in debates that shape our present-day discussions on policy and the state of our global society.

This panel focuses on studying socio-economic and racial differences in health across groups using anthropometric measurements such as height and body mass. Anthropometric measurements are ideally suited to trace the health conditions of the population. While 70-80 per cent of a person’s height is determined by their genetic make-up, 20-30 per cent is driven by their nutrition and exposure to disease during their growing years. Thus, by comparing differences in height and weight between groups, we can learn a lot about the different health conditions that individuals experienced in the past. The papers in this panel contribute to the literature in two ways. First, they discuss and problematize the construction of different social and racial groups to compare in the analysis. Social and racial distinctions have not been stable over time, especially in the long run, and therefore scholars must be careful when making comparisons or generalisations about health inequalities in particular societies. Second, the papers analyse new quantitative datasets to discover how both modern economic growth and socioeconomic inequality influenced health.

The papers are drawn from a wide range of periods and places but seek to transcend the specific context to speak more broadly about measuring health inequalities in the past. López-Alonso traces 150 years of health history in Mexico using information on infectious disease in connection with anthropometric measures of different groups of the population; Challú relies on modern health surveys to trace the height of women by level of education in twelve Latin American countries since 1950; Sikes studies South African prison registers from 1850 to 1900 to understand health differences across racial groups; and Schneider analyses training ship records in the England to study socioeconomic differences in children’s growth from 1850 to 1970. Furthermore, the composition of the panel demonstrates the international collaboration needed to elucidate the trends in health inequality at a global scale.

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