Research Topic

Complexity-Based Approaches in Health Communication

About this Research Topic

Given the often-cited limitations of foundationalist thinking, as well as the growing recognition that the world is more complex than the understandings that it offers, the search is on for more productive ways to conceptualize and address critical challenges such as health inequities, obesity-related diseases such as diabetes, and climate change. To make needed progress in these areas, a growing number of researchers and practitioners in such varied areas as development and medicine are shifting away from reductionistic and often top-down approaches to research, policy, and practice, toward a mindset that arises from complexity thinking. Rather than viewing the whole through isolated analysis of individual parts, complexity-based approaches view the whole as a system whose action varies in context.

Joining this movement are practitioners and researchers who focus on the broad area of health communication. What began a few decades ago as a message-focused effort to persuade people to engage in healthier behavior has evolved to include communication theory, research and practice that seeks to understand and improve health and health care systems in ways not captured in traditional approaches. While some have embraced the concept by simply evoking more complicated theories grounded in a Newtonian understanding of the world, a more heuristic development involves a complete shift in ontological and epistemological assumptions that regards communication as critical in not only preventing and treating ill-health and disease, but also in creating and sustaining the health and well-being of individuals, families, communities, institutions and societies. This collection of articles will focus on the latter, which represents a potentially transformative shift for elaborating our understanding of the interplay between communication and health, as well as how health is shaped and maintained. Such a shift provides a more substantive framework for exploring important dynamics such as cultural understandings of healing, ameliorating health disparities, and the intertwined dimensions of physical, mental and social well-being embodied in the World Health Organization’s definition of health.

For this issue, we are seeking articles that take a complexity perspective that, while broadly defined, brings a wholistic, systemic, and contextual understanding to the communication challenges and opportunities in promoting and sustaining human and planetary health. For example, rather than focusing on messages in isolation, this collection should reflect the dynamic action of conversation, both face-to-face and mediated, exploring how this both creates and impacts health, health care systems and the communities they serve. While we are seeking research articles that offer data from efforts to implement complexity thinking to improve health or the provision of health care, we also welcome essays that explore various dimensions of health communication and complexity, such as the interconnectedness of talk and biology or the inherently relational nature of existence.


Topic Editors John and Susan Parrish-Sprowl are the co-founders of the company Parrish-Sprowl & Associates, which offers consulting services related to the subject of this Research Topic. All other Topic Editors declare no competing interests with regard to the Research Topic subject.


Keywords: complexity, systemic, health, dynamic, process


Important Note: All contributions to this Research Topic must be within the scope of the section and journal to which they are submitted, as defined in their mission statements. Frontiers reserves the right to guide an out-of-scope manuscript to a more suitable section or journal at any stage of peer review.

Given the often-cited limitations of foundationalist thinking, as well as the growing recognition that the world is more complex than the understandings that it offers, the search is on for more productive ways to conceptualize and address critical challenges such as health inequities, obesity-related diseases such as diabetes, and climate change. To make needed progress in these areas, a growing number of researchers and practitioners in such varied areas as development and medicine are shifting away from reductionistic and often top-down approaches to research, policy, and practice, toward a mindset that arises from complexity thinking. Rather than viewing the whole through isolated analysis of individual parts, complexity-based approaches view the whole as a system whose action varies in context.

Joining this movement are practitioners and researchers who focus on the broad area of health communication. What began a few decades ago as a message-focused effort to persuade people to engage in healthier behavior has evolved to include communication theory, research and practice that seeks to understand and improve health and health care systems in ways not captured in traditional approaches. While some have embraced the concept by simply evoking more complicated theories grounded in a Newtonian understanding of the world, a more heuristic development involves a complete shift in ontological and epistemological assumptions that regards communication as critical in not only preventing and treating ill-health and disease, but also in creating and sustaining the health and well-being of individuals, families, communities, institutions and societies. This collection of articles will focus on the latter, which represents a potentially transformative shift for elaborating our understanding of the interplay between communication and health, as well as how health is shaped and maintained. Such a shift provides a more substantive framework for exploring important dynamics such as cultural understandings of healing, ameliorating health disparities, and the intertwined dimensions of physical, mental and social well-being embodied in the World Health Organization’s definition of health.

For this issue, we are seeking articles that take a complexity perspective that, while broadly defined, brings a wholistic, systemic, and contextual understanding to the communication challenges and opportunities in promoting and sustaining human and planetary health. For example, rather than focusing on messages in isolation, this collection should reflect the dynamic action of conversation, both face-to-face and mediated, exploring how this both creates and impacts health, health care systems and the communities they serve. While we are seeking research articles that offer data from efforts to implement complexity thinking to improve health or the provision of health care, we also welcome essays that explore various dimensions of health communication and complexity, such as the interconnectedness of talk and biology or the inherently relational nature of existence.


Topic Editors John and Susan Parrish-Sprowl are the co-founders of the company Parrish-Sprowl & Associates, which offers consulting services related to the subject of this Research Topic. All other Topic Editors declare no competing interests with regard to the Research Topic subject.


Keywords: complexity, systemic, health, dynamic, process


Important Note: All contributions to this Research Topic must be within the scope of the section and journal to which they are submitted, as defined in their mission statements. Frontiers reserves the right to guide an out-of-scope manuscript to a more suitable section or journal at any stage of peer review.

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Submission Deadlines

26 July 2020 Manuscript

Participating Journals

Manuscripts can be submitted to this Research Topic via the following journals:

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Topic Editors

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Submission Deadlines

26 July 2020 Manuscript

Participating Journals

Manuscripts can be submitted to this Research Topic via the following journals:

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