Ecology of Health

We’re working on a groundbreaking research project that reconsiders our conceptions of Health. The project looks at what we mean by health and how it is shaped, for good or ill, by our contexts and the way we learn.

Together with the International Bateson Institute, we’re investigating across different contexts in which people experience ‘Health’ to seek out warm data – that is, to understand data as part of, as opposed to separate and distinct from, the situation in which people find themselves.  Ecology of Health looks at what we mean by health and how it is shaped, for good or ill, by our contexts and the way we learn.

The ecology of our health and the health of our ecology are inextricably linked

Health, wellbeing, and aliveness characterise thriving people and social processes. Yet Healthcare does not address our internal environment of microbiomes, or our external social contexts of work, education, and leisure.

We need to ask a fundamental question: what is health?

What is health as a process of interaction, between our societies, our environments and ecologies, our epistemologies and the way we think about knowledge, our ontologies and the way we understand our identities.

This project is a collaboration with the International Bateson Institute (IBI). The IBI has been working for a number of years to develop a transcontextual approach to research and interaction with complex systems. The project is a reflection of those years of development. Gregory Bateson was one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th Century. His thinking provides an insight into patterns that connect across contexts. This is more relevant now than ever. Seeing in terms of supply and demand, with interventions that sit within organisational boundaries, results in a system that is costly to administer yet unable to meet the needs of the people it is designed to serve. Within the traditional system, diagnosis and treatment suffer from singular focus and linear and mechanistic thinking.

Health is more than healthcare systems

Health requires an understanding of the links necessary for survival and thriving between individuals and their environment – biologically, politically, culturally, and economically. There are several contexts outside ‘healthcare’ that need to be considered alongside traditional concerns, or we will not be able even to grasp “health” in its more comprehensive definitions. Our failure to embrace complexity is compromising healthcare delivery.

Combining across contexts

Health reaches across multiple contexts. From the air we breathe to the food we eat, the way we live includes our emotional, mental, physical responses to our day to day lives as they intersect.

All of these contexts contribute to a sense of who we are, and how we live. To separate human health from this concert of contexts, and describe it as a strictly biological mechanism, is to make a false cut in a necessarily entangled transcontextual process. This cut is a mistake that has consequences, and these consequences occur across many contexts – beyond ‘Health’. Abstracting health from the larger systems of society and ecological interdependencies obscures the important relationships between those systems. The survival of human and other species, is contingent upon better understanding of those relationships which could be called: health.

This complexity, far from being a complication to be avoided in research and practice, contains the resources needed to think about how to address Health within multiple contexts. Our present approach to healthcare takes shortcuts that obscure the paths we need to take.

Inverting ingrained assumptions

Embracing complexity is a complete reversal of our assumptions about scope and responsibility. Short-circuits of this complexity may be appealing to policymakers but are damaging to the long term goal of supporting health. The underlying trends have been neglected too long (like other globally connected, complex issues, such as climate change which also involves ecological health). The increasing ineffectiveness of statistical understanding of health problems is visible in the rapid deterioration of the economic indicators of the health system.

Shaping the dialogue

In June 2017 we hosted a project conference at the remarkable Bromley by Bow Centre. We were excited at the number and range of distinguished people participating. And by the brilliant, insightful and quite unrepeatable conversations. People joined us from a wide range of disciplines and backgrounds, and from all around the world. We gathered together scholars, practitioners, patients, and professionals: a significant step in a global action research dialogue to understand Health across contexts. The project is about transcending boundaries, national or otherwise. When taken at its broadest level, Health is a topic that unites us all.

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