Access to intervene. An ethnographic study of public health practices targeting health inequalities

Mette Terp Høybye*, Ditte Herring Holt, Morten Hulvej Rod

*Corresponding author for this work

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Much public health research has devoted attention to the question of how interventions aimed at reducing health inequalities can access so-called “hard-to-reach” populations. This work has generally reflected an instrumentalist approach, which implies the preexistence of particular target groups characterized by specific public health problems. The key research interests are to find ways to effectively alleviate health inequalities and to identify the best ways to intervene to address disparate health problems among certain groups of people. Based on ethnographic research with public health officers in four Danish municipalities, this article turns the issue on its head by examining how public health officers gain access to intervene in practice and, as part of this process, define and delineate target groups and public health problems. Through detailed descriptions of two ethnographic cases, we develop the argument that public health interventions carry with them moral differentiations that may contradict the overall intention of reducing health inequalities. We adopt a theoretical perspective developed by Lakoff and Collier, suggesting that public health interventions can be understood as “regimes of living.” This leads us to the conclusion that the practices of gaining access result in the production of unforeseen target groups and new moral configurations where the value of health becomes linked to other types of value, most importantly economic value. For public health officers, the complicated issue of gaining access to intervene is not simply a matter of finding practical solutions; it also defines and delineates the scope of public health itself.

Original languageEnglish
JournalHealth (United Kingdom)
Issue number3
Pages (from-to)362-377
Publication statusPublished - May 2023

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© The Author(s) 2021.


  • ethnography
  • health promotion
  • inequality
  • intersectoral collaboration
  • intervention
  • policy
  • Anthropology, Cultural
  • Public Health
  • Humans
  • Public Health Practice


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