The ‘Glasgow Effect’: The Controversial Cultural Life of a Public Health Term

Article Summary by Fred Spence

Why are so many more Glaswegians dying, and younger, compared to English cities with almost identical deprivation levels? This was a hot topic in Scottish public health debates in the early twenty-first century. Public health researchers, particularly the Glasgow Centre of Population Health (GCPH), used the terms ‘Glasgow effect’ and ‘Scottish effect’ as placeholders while they researched the mysterious factors behind Scotland’s excess mortality. The press was hooked. Was Scottishness itself to blame, or a lack of daylight, or was there, so to speak, something in the water? These vague but catchy terms took on a colourful life of their own, not just in the press but also in academic, artistic and policy work. Writers used them in provocative and contradictory ways when discussing public health but also used them in relation to sports, national identity, politics and the arts. This made a vibrant ‘Glasgow effect’ myth of an exceptional Scotland —  whether exceptionally sick or culturally rich — and emerged at a time of increased cultural optimism and anxiety, around Scottish devolution in 1997 and the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. The ‘Glasgow effect’ story shows how health concepts can become wrapped in larger national or political stories. Even though GCPH identified those mysterious factors, it had already lost control of the terms and was unable to withdraw them from public usage. This is a reminder to those in public health and policy to be very careful about the language used when introducing a new idea to the public.


Read the full article on the Medical Humanities journal website.


Portrait of Fred SpenceDr Fred Spence is formerly of the University of Glasgow and was previously editor-in-chief for medical humanities website The Polyphony. This article is based on Wellcome Trust-funded PhD research examining stigmatised health issues in contemporary Scottish literature and the press (1997-present) and the so-called ‘Glasgow effect’—the phenomenon of poor health and high mortality in Scotland, even after accounting for socioeconomic factors.

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