Study shows revival of ‘social murder’ concept relating to health, well-being

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Researchers from York University’s School of Health Policy and Management in the Faculty of Health conducted a scoping review of content applying the “social murder” concept relating to health and well-being that was published beginning in 1900.

The study aims to document the re-emergence in academic journals of the concept of social murder – a term first used by philosopher Friedrich Engels in 1845 to describe how living and working conditions experienced by English workers caused premature death. Engels argued that those responsible for these conditions (ruling authorities, the bourgeoisie) were committing social murder.

Dennis Raphael
Dennis Raphael

The paper, “The reemergence of Engels’ concept of social murder in response to growing social and health inequalities,” was authored by PhD candidates Stella Medvedyuk and Piara Govender, and Professor Dennis Raphael, and is published in the journal Social Science & Medicine.

After the concept was introduced, it became largely dormant in academic journals through the 1900s. Since 2000, the authors report, there has been a revival of the social murder concept with its growth particularly evident in the U.K. over the past decade as a result of the Grenfell Tower fire and the effects of austerity imposed by successive Conservative governments.

The scoping review consisted of identifying two primary concepts of social murder: social murder as resulting from capitalist exploitation; and social murder as resulting from bad public policy across the domains of working conditions, living conditions, poverty, housing, race, health inequalities, crime and violence, neoliberalism, gender, food, social assistance, deregulation and austerity. The authors considered reasons for the re-emergence of Engels’ social murder concept and the role it can play in resisting the forces responsible for the living and working conditions that kill.

The authors suggest that using “anger arousal” by way of the term social murder could be a means to instigate public resistance to public policy directions set by governing authorities that threaten health and well-being.

The paper states, “Efforts to promote public policy that equitably distributes resources amongst the population is becoming increasingly difficult due to increasing acceptance of neoliberal inspired approaches to governance. The COVID-19 pandemic has not only made the health effects of these inequalities in resource distribution explicit but has also exacerbated them.”

Another means of public mobilization would be to question the legitimacy and competence of governing authorities. For example, identifying those who benefit from social murder or contribute to the creation of social murder could spark public resistance to health-threatening policies.

“Perhaps the greatest benefit from the reemergence of the social murder concept is to make explicit that the source of much of the excessive morbidity and premature death present in our societies is to be found in the capitalist economic system,” the paper states.

Evoking Engels’ concept of social murder, and highlighting those who profit from these harmful structures, is a viable option for mounting public resistance to the economic system that is causing harm, says Raphael.

The paper is freely available until Dec. 4 at this link; after that date, contact the authors for a copy.