From Medicine to Health: The Proliferation and Diversification of Cultural Authority

Steven Epstein*, Stefan Timmermans

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In his account of the medical profession’s ascent, Paul Starr drew a distinction between the social authority of physicians and the cultural authority of medicine—between doctors’ capacity to direct others’ behavior and the ability of medical institutions and discourses to shape meanings of illness, health, wellness, and treatment. Subsequently, scholars have reflected on the social-structural transformations challenging physicians’ social authority but neglected shifts in cultural authority. Focusing on the United States, we find a proliferation and diversification of cultural authority, reflecting a partial movement from the domain of medicine into new terrains of health. This shift is apparent in the resurgence of alternative healing, the advent of new forms of self-care and self-monitoring, the rise of health social movements, and the spread of health information online. We advance a research agenda to understand how the mechanisms and dynamics of cultural authority shape contests to speak in the name of health.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)240-254
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of health and social behavior
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 2021


  • authority
  • cultural authority
  • expertise
  • healthism
  • historical change

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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