Integrating the Social Sciences and Humanities in the Canadian Institutes for Health Research

by Karen R. Grant | Oct 01, 1999


This position paper examines the place of the social sciences and humanities (SSH) in the CIHR. We show that SSH perspectives and methods of investigation and analysis are particularly important in health research as one makes the move from pure science (the biomedical) to the application of that knowledge in clinical studies and in studies related to the delivery of services. It is through the ability of the SSH to understand human social dynamics that other types of biomedical, clinical and health services research can contribute to improvements in the health of Canadians. Further, we argue that if the CIHR aims to improve the health of Canadians, then all sources of data and explanatory models must be given due consideration. SSH research must be included as a necessary and cross-cutting theme in the CIHR because it has relevance to the other themes (whatever they are) and also to the major institutes (however they are formulated).

We use five case studies (social science research on HIV/AIDS, anthropological investigations of culture and illness, the narrative study of illness, human health in historical perspective, and participatory ergonomics) to demonstrate the ways in which SSH health research sheds new or different light on health and health care. Guided by an epistemology that recognizes that knowledge (including that related to health) is fundamentally a social construction, SSH health researchers add value to our knowledge of health and health care through an approach that is reflexive and critical, and through the innovative use of various methodologies, including partnerships with lay participants.

We conclude with a series of recommendations that centre on achieving the inclusive, transformative, and integrative aims of the CIHR. First, we argue that the CIHR needs to build and strengthen SSH health research capacity through the provision of adequate operational funds for SSH health research. As well, SSH health researchers must be fully integrated into all institutes (in governance, peer review, research priority setting, etc.). Second, we recommend that the CIHR must broaden its conception of partnership to include those in the policy and voluntary (community-based) sectors. Such affiliations contribute to mutual capacity building and greater accountability, while at the same time making research more relevant and useable in the uptake of findings. Third, we argue that the CIHR must ensure an inclusive and fair peer review process, which includes appropriate representation of SSH disciplines and perspectives. In keeping with our belief in the value of community-academic research alliances, we also recommend that the CIHR institutionalize the involvement of community representatives within the peer review system. And finally, we maintain that unless the CIHR institutionalizes mechanisms for true interdisciplinarity and knowledge exchange between the four CIHR sectors and between disciplines, the transformative vision of the CIHR will remain a mirage. Creative integration requires all health researchers to value and respect the distinctive contributions of diverse fields of research.

The vision of the CIHR, to transform how we do health research and to improve the health of Canadians, is a bold one. The SSH are integral to realizing this new future in health and health research.