Critical health psychology

This edited book provides a very useful introduction to contemporary ideas in health psychology theory and practice. ‘Critical’ is a term with many meanings. For this book the writers use it to mean a theoretically informed practice in the wake of Foucault’s analysis of power.

The collection is helpfully organised into four parts: theory, context, research methods and practice, with an introduction and conclusion by the editor. I learned a great deal by reading the whole volume, but all the chapters stand alone and can be selected by topic for the busy professional. At the end all chapters have a key points section, further reading with comments on each reference (the main reference section is at the end of the book), and assignment questions (helpful for supervision or teaching). Most chapters contain ‘boxes’ of notable comment, for example, case studies, checklists or dialogue.

The first chapter by Stain is, except for the dedicated theorist, best left until last. If I had not been committed to reading the book I would have been put off by its inaccessible style of writing. The following two chapters in this section were much more readable and interesting.

The second section, on the context of health psychology, is both fascinating and, I would argue, important reading for the serious health professional. The chapters provide a critique of the limitations of the biomedical model, and illustrate the impact of social policy and practice upon the health of populations and the delivery of health care. For all of us who are concerned to deliver effective health care as widely as possible, this is illuminating reading.

The third section describes a range of qualitative research methods, providing illustrations of their usage as well as a commentary on what types of research questions each is most suited to, and a critique on the limitations of quantitative research methods. The importance of reflection and ‘user participation’ are thoroughly discussed, as is the influence of such methodology on change in health-related behaviour. The chapter by Chamberlain is probably the most useful to the ‘general reader’.

The final section is specifically dedicated to the practice of health psychology, though this has been addressed throughout the other chapters. It provides interesting and informative examples of health psychologists’ interventions which have resulted in community change and development (for example, water pollution in Tennessee); and a notable situation when an intervention was not able to succeed in its objective and an analysis of the reasons for this (peer education by commercial sex workers in South Africa).

Overall, I would recommend this book to all health professionals for the quality of the writing, and the thought-provoking content.

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