An Introduction to the Role of Social and Behavioral Sciences in Public Health

Published on: May 1, 2024

The deep integration of social and behavioral sciences has expanded the landscape of public health from a mere battleground against pathogens to a field that recognizes a more nuanced etiology of disease interwoven with individual choices, community norms, and systemic influences. Recognition of the greater social contexts that define health has inspired a new direction in the field: The Social and Behavioral Sciences. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines social and behavioral sciences in the context of public health as referencing the cognitive, social and environmental catalysts or inhibiting health-related behaviors. The field of public health hasn’t always placed such heavy focus on the social influences of health, however, research on the intricate relationship between social factors and health outcomes has been accumulating for centuries. Nineteenth century social epidemiology pioneer Louis Rene-Velereme conducted path-breaking research on poverty and health in Parisian neighborhoods and presented some of the earliest documented work seeking to understand how social inequities may breed disparate rates of disease. However, at the time, even Villerme defaulted to the narrowest of explanations for higher burdens of infant and child mortality in the city's poorest neighborhoods, and hypothesized that people of lower status don’t behave in very healthy ways. Not long after Villerme’s studies were published, the etiology of Tuberculosis was being heavily postulated, and French physician Hermann Pidoux argued for a fundamentally social etiology of the disease. 

At the time, this view was too radically anti-contagionist to gain traction, especially considering Robert Koch’s newly discovered Germ Theory. However, Pidoux believed that recognizing the social etiologies of diseases could direct medicine towards domains where preventive measures, public health initiatives, and governmental involvement could fruitfully intervene, and with that he was spot on. 

Since Velerme, and Pidoux the field has evolved immensely and public health work now places great focus on the social, cultural, economic and behavioral contexts that influence health. 

Social and behavioral sciences are especially relevant now as we enter an era of chronic non-communicable disease, and shift away from communicable diseases as the main drivers of morbidity and mortality worldwide. This epidemiological transition begs a holistic view of health that goes beyond medical interventions alone. It requires an understanding of the intricate interplay between individual behaviors, societal norms, and the social and economic structures that profoundly shape health outcomes. 

Social and behavioral sciences provide the theoretical frameworks and methodological tools necessary to explore these complexities and inform targeted interventions that address the root causes of health disparities. Social and behavioral sciences embrace a multidisciplinary approach integrating insights from psychology, sociology, anthropology, economics, and other social sciences. With this, public health practitioners can more effectively address the multifaceted challenges posed by the rise of chronic diseases and promote health equity on a global scale.

This article explores the role of social and behavioral sciences in understanding health disparities, promoting health equity, and improving population health outcomes, and introduces career insights for anyone interested in joining the rankings of social and behavioral scientists in public health.

Key Concepts in Social and Behavioral Sciences

Understanding the Social Determinants of Health (SDOH) is essential for comprehending the importance of careers in social and behavioral sciences. SDOH are defined as the conditions in the environments where people are born, live, work and play that ultimately affect their health. Healthy People 2030, an initiative that sets data-driven national objectives to improve health and well-being over the next decade cites examples of social determinants which include the following:

  • safe housing, transportation and neighborhoods

  • racism, discrimination and violence, 

  • education, job opportunities and income

  • access to nutritious foods and physical activity opportunities

  • polluted air and water

  • language and literacy skills.

Behavioral theories also play a crucial role in the realm of social and behavioral sciences within public health. Theories are used to provide frameworks for comprehending human behavior, decision-making processes and other factors which influence behaviors that dictate health. Through applying behavioral theories, public health practitioners can better design effective interventions and strategies for promoting positive health outcomes and preventing disease. Common theoretical models of health behavior include:

1) The Health Belief Model (HBM): 

HHB theorizes people’s beliefs surrounding the perception of risk for specific health problems, perception of the benefits associated with taking action to avoid disease and what factors influence readiness to take action. HBM is most often applied to prevention related health concerns such as early cancer detection and hypertension screening

2) The Transtheoretical Model/Stages of Change (TTM): 

TTM theorizes long-term changes in health behavior which necessitate multiple actions and adaptations over time. TTM uses the construct of “stage of change” which proposes that people experience various stages of readiness to adopt healthful behaviors over time. This model has been found useful when applied to explaining and predicting changes in a range of behaviors such as smoking, physical activity and eating habits. 

3) Social Cognitive Theory (SCT): 

SCT is a model which explains behavior through the continual interaction of three three prongs (1) personal factors, (2) environmental influences (3)behavior. A basic premise of SCT is that people learn behavior through observing the actions of others, and what results from those actions. Social and behavioral scientists in Public Health can utilize SCT through counseling interventions aimed at disease prevention and management.

4) The Social Ecological Model: 

The Social Ecological Model emphasizes the multiple levels of influences that shape behavior (e.g individual, interpersonal, organizational, community and policy). This model is founded upon the idea that behaviors are influenced by and also influence the social environment. Social and behavioral scientists can use this model to help understand the factors that drive behavior and offer guidance for health promotion programming aimed at encouraging the adoption of healthy behaviors. 

Cultural Competence

Cultural competence is another core facet of careers in social and behavioral sciences. Cultural competence is defined as the cohesive integration of behaviors, attitudes and policies which work in congruence to facilitate effective work in cross-cultural situations. Cultural competence is a process that evolves as opposed to a skill you can master. An individual falls on the cultural competence continuum based on their levels of awareness, skills and knowledge. Cultural competence allows social and behavioral science professionals in public health to effectively address the complex social, cultural, and behavioral determinants of health and work towards health equity for all populations.

Significance in Public Health

Disparities in health are often bred from broader social factors, making the study of social and behavioral sciences extremely poignant to public health. The CDC cites addressing the social determinants of health as a key strategy for attaining health equity. Health equity can be achieved when everyone can realize their complete health potential, and when no one is disadvantaged from reaching this potential due to their social status or other socially determined factors. Other definitions of health equity include the absence of disparate health outcomes due to varying levels of inherent social advantage or disadvantage dictated by respective positions in the social hierarchy. Reducing inequities in health can be achieved by addressing social determinants of health such as poverty, unequal access to health care, lack of education, stigma, and racism. 

The role that behavioral interventions play in disease prevention is another significant way that social and behavioral sciences are essential to public health practice. Targeting individual behaviors while also addressing underlying social determinants can help public health practitioners mitigate risk factors, promote healthier lifestyles and reduce disease burden for particular populations. Behavioral interventions that consider the broader social and environmental contexts that influence behavior can help empower individuals to make positive health choices. Moreover, leveraging insights from other disciplines such as psychology, sociology and anthropology can help public health practitioners identify the unique needs of diverse populations, and optimize health outcomes.  

Social and behavioral science can also help us to shape health policy through a social lens. Social and behavioral sciences offer a critical lens that considers and addresses the various social dimensions of health. Integrating broader social perspectives into health policy development and implementation paves the way for more equitable and effective policies. For example, the Health in All Policies Approach considers how policies in non-health sectors impact health and health equity through a diverse array of policy solutions not conventionally thought to be “health” policy. These include policies that target non-health specific arenas such as the provision of early childhood education, or availability and accessibility of public transportation. Understanding how non-health policies, and health policies affect the social and economic environment and in turn health outcomes for populations can help new policy that aims to advance health equity for all populations.  

Social and behavioral sciences also inform community-based approaches which are valuable for tackling public health challenges. Communities are both the center of focus, as well as the beneficiaries of public health careers in social and behavioral sciences. Social and behavioral scientists work closely with communities to develop contextually relevant interventions, and work to advance health equity for all.

Considering a Career in Social and Behavioral Sciences

If you are considering a career in social and behavioral sciences there are multiple educational pathways and qualifications to think about:

Bachelor’s Degree:

Many entry-level positions in social and behavioral sciences require a bachelor’s degree in fields like psychology, sociology, anthropology, public health, social work, or related disciplines. Obtaining a bachelor's degree in any of these disciplines lays the groundwork for principles and theories of social and behavioral sciences.

Master’s Degree:

Positions in research or other specialized areas may require you to obtain a master’s degree in social work, public health, psychology, sociology, anthropology, or a related field. A master’s degree would grant you additional training in research methods, data analysis, program evaluation, and specialized topics within social and behavioral sciences.

Doctoral Degree:

For advanced research, leadership positions, or academia, a doctoral degree (Ph.D. or Psy.D.) in social work, psychology, public health, sociology, anthropology, or a related field may be necessary. Doctoral degrees usually involve dissertation work, in-depth research, and advanced coursework in a specialized area of social and behavioral sciences.

Essential skills for a career in social and behavioral sciences include:

  • Research and Analysis Skills:

    Research skills are an important part of work in the social and behavioral sciences. A background in qualitative, and quantitative research or coursework is helpful when pursuing these careers. The ability to critically collect and analyze data, and draw evidenced based solutions is essential when entering the research realm of the social and behavioral sciences.

  • Interpersonal Skills:

    Social and behavioral scientists work in a multitude of settings, with a diverse range of people. Having interpersonal skills such as empathy and cultural competence allows social and behavioral scientists to work closely and build rapport with participants, clients and community members.

  • Problem-Solving Skills:

    Complex social and behavioral problems require innovative solutions and social and behavioral scientists are tasked with addressing real-world challenges in public health, political science, social science and health research.

Career Paths in Social and Behavioral Sciences:

There are a diverse array of careers available in the field of social and behavioral sciences. Some diverse roles include:

Social Worker:

Social workers work directly with individuals and families who are coping with challenges such as poverty, homelessness, substance abuse and domestic violence. They provide counseling, advocacy and support services, and work to connect clients to resources. Many social work positions require a masters in social work (MSW).


Sociologists study social institutions, structures and processes to understand behavioral patterns, cultural norms, social inequities, and societal change. Sociologists often conduct research, analyze data, and contribute to policy development in various arenas such as education, healthcare and social policy. Sociologists typically need a masters degree, or a PhD to enter the occupation.


Anthropologists study human societies and cultures to understand cultural diversity, social relationships, and the dynamics of human behavior. They may work in academia, research institutions, government agencies, or non-profit organizations. Anthropologists typically need at least a master's degree, and are expected to have completed field work. Individuals with Bachelor’s in Anthropology can work as assistant or field workers.

Public Health Professional:

Public health professionals can use their background in social and behavioral science to work to address health disparities, promote health equity, and improve population health outcomes in arenas such as health education, community outreach, program planning and evaluation, health policy, or epidemiology.

Community Organizer:

Community organizers are tasked with mobilizing and empowering the communities they work with to address social inequities, and advocate for change. They do so through facilitating community meetings, coordinating grassroots campaigns, and developing relationships with local organizations and stakeholders.

Policy Analysts:

The role of policy analysts is to analyze social and behavioral trends, evaluate the impact of health, and non-health related policies and programs, and develop recommendations for policy makers. A policy analyst can work in various settings including government agencies, advocacy organizations, or consulting firms.


As you can now see, social and behavioral sciences play a vital role in public health. Two centuries ago, public health thinkers such as Velerme and Pidoux challenged the rigid frameworks of disease etiology to include how social factors may be major drivers of health. Today addressing the social determinants of health is recognized as integral to achieving health equity for all populations. In 2024, a student of Public Health must understand how broader social factors profoundly affect the health of all individuals, and populations and how behavioral interventions can be utilized for optimizing health. Entering the field of Social and Behavioral Sciences in Public Health is as important now as it ever was, and today opportunities in this field are vast. We would encourage readers to join the ranks of Social and Behavioral Scientists.

About the Authors

Written by:

Jessica Weissman

Jessica Weissman is a Masters student at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. At Mailman she studies in the Sociomedical Sciences Department and is pursuing a certificate in Sexuality, Sexual and Reproductive Health. Jess is interested in reducing health disparities for sexual and gender minority populations. Jessica holds a Bachelor of Science in Public Health from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

jess weissman headshot

Jessica Weissman

Contributing Author

Education: Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health

Reviewed by:

Katherine Paul, MPH

Katherine Paul, MPH is a senior project manager at a leading medical communications and publications organization. She supports multidisciplinary teams handling large-scale accounts, the deliverables of which improve health outcomes and patient well-being. Ms. Paul holds a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree in Health Promotion from Columbia University, Mailman School of Public Health and passed the Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES) shortly after graduation. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology from Dickinson College.

Ms. Paul previously worked at a public health non-profit where she managed all aspects of diverse health-related projects, including the implementation of a randomized controlled clinical trial on sexual health for teens with developmental disabilities, as well as the evaluation of a statewide tobacco cessation program with more than 20,000 annual cases. She has developed and delivered posters and presentations at national conferences including the American Public Health Association (APHA) annual meeting. 

Opinions and information published by the author here on are of my own and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of my employer or other organizations for my designated roles.

Katherine Paul

Katherine Paul, MPH

Editorial Lead

Education: Columbia University, Mailman School of Public Health

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