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