A hermeneutic science: health economics and Habermas

Neil Small*, Russell Mannion

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Citations (Scopus)


Purpose - Mainstream health economics labours under a misleading understanding of the nature of the topic area and suffers from a concomitant poverty of thinking about theory and method. The purpose here is to explore this critical position and argue that health economics should aspire to being more than a technical discipline. It can, and should, engage with transformative discourse. Design/methodology/approach - It is argued that the hermeneutic sciences, emphasising interpretation not instrumentality or domination, offer a route into the change to which one seeks to contribute. The article specifically focuses on the way Habermas provides insights in his approach to knowledge, reason and political economy. How he emphasises complexity and interaction within cultural milieu is explored and primacy is given to preserving the life-world against the encroachments of a narrow rationalization. Findings - The argument for a critical re-imagining of health economics is presented in three stages. First, the antecedents, current assumptions and critical voices from contemporary economics and health economics are reviewed. Second, the way in which health is best understood via engaging with the complexity of both the subject itself and the society and culture within which it is embedded is explored. Third, the contribution that hermeneutics, and Habermas's critical theory, could make to a new health economics is examined. Originality/value - The paper offers a radical alternative to health economics. It explores the shortcomings of current thinking and argues an optimistic position. Progress via reason is possible if one reframes both in the direction of communication and in the appreciation of reflexivity and communality. This is a position that resonates with many who challenge prevailing paradigms, in economics and elsewhere.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)219-235
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Health, Organisation and Management
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2005
Externally publishedYes


  • Economic theory
  • Economics
  • Health and medicine
  • Research methods


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