Cultural contexts of health and well-being


Culture should be regarded as the set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of society or a social group, and that it encompasses, in addition to art and literature, lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions and beliefs.

UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity

Awareness of cultural contexts has always been central to the work of WHO. Whether investigating the attitudes that determine the success or failure of immunization programmes as part of the European Vaccine Action Plan or understanding community resilience and well-being in the face of poor health and economic hardship, cultural context invariably plays an important and increasingly recognized role.

The challenge is to take a systematic approach to research on how culture affects perceptions, access and experiences of health and well-being. For an effective approach, relevant work from the wider social sciences must be considered, including medical anthropology and history. The humanities, including cultural and literary studies, are also important, particularly when such research can shed light on the subjective human experiences of health.

With the adoption of Health 2020, the European health policy framework, more emphasis is being placed on the perceived well-being of European populations. The WHO Regional Office for Europe is leading a project on the cultural contexts of health for in-depth analysis of how cultural factors affect health and well-being.

Research project on cultural contexts of health

An expert group has been established to help the Regional Office determine how best to approach these issues. The group, which met for the first time in January 2015, comprises 21 experts from a variety of disciplines and professional backgrounds, such as epidemiology, statistics, anthropology, public health, history, cultural studies, philosophy and geography.

Supported by the expert group, the project will address three key areas:

  • advocacy: clarifying the concepts behind the cultural contexts of health and making a case for their importance;
  • research: commissioning policy-relevant research on the influence of cultural contexts in specific public health initiatives, such as measuring well-being; and
  • reporting: developing a culture-centred approach to reporting on well-being.

If you would like to be kept informed about the activities and progress of this initiative, please write to us at