From Lab to Intervention and Back

Doing and Undoing Diversity in Obesity Research, Treatment and Prevention

Project collaborators: Ulrike Felt, Kay Felder, Michael Penkler, Bernhard Winkler, Theresa Öhler

WWTF - 05/2012-04/2016

Diversity in the Context of Health

In recent years, “diversity” has become a buzzword within medical practice, research and health policy. Contrary to the prior assumption that human bodies are essentially similar and an associated focus on standardized patients, the view that people have different dispositions and needs regarding health has gained prominence. Age, gender, education, socio-economic status and ethnic and cultural background all seem to make a difference in relation to health risk, health behavior and the use of medical services.  Medical practice and research are increasingly called upon to take these differences into account, and to develop ethnically, culturally and gender sensitive approaches.
This opens up a variety of questions: How is diversity understood in specific contexts? Which (often implicit and culturally entrenched) modes of ordering and classifying are implicated in this notion? And what meanings do differences acquire in practice? In this context, it is important not to forget that the categories created and used in such contexts are never simply descriptive, but have strong effects on both the knowledge produced and on the people classified by them, on their self-conceptions and everyday lives.

The classification and differentiation of people into different groups is thus important for an increased sensibility towards different needs, but also carries in itself the danger of reinforcing stereotypes and of the re-inscription of cultural and biological differences as essential – a seemingly paradoxical problem that many medical professionals, researchers, health promoters, but also individuals face.

Project Aim – Understanding “Doing Diversity” in the Obesity Context

The aim of this project is to develop a deeper understanding of practices of doing and undoing diversity in the Austrian obesity context. Obesity forms a good example for such a study, because this health problem is supposedly strongly intertwined with life forms and food as a cultural phenomenon – two areas where cultural distinctions in the broadest sense play a crucial role. We are interested in which “differences” play a role in this context, and how they are enacted and understood both by health professionals and patients.

We investigate performances of diversity in the obesity context in three different yet partially connected arenas in Austria: (1) research sites; (2) public health interventions, e.g. information days and dieting programs addressing specific ethnic groups; (3) clinical settings where people identified as obese get treated. We will investigate how people are classified and classify themselves in these different contexts, when and how diversity is explicitly addressed or made invisible, and how categories like gender, education, socio-economic status, cultural identity and migration (from different cultural contexts, but also between different living environments) come into play.

Our goal is not only to contribute to academic debates, but also to foster reflexivity on diversity issues related to obesity through engaging in focused discussions and exchange with relevant actors.

Methodological Approach

To investigate how diversity gets enacted within different contexts of researching, treating and preventing obesity, we will employ a variety of qualitative socio-scientific research methods:

  • Semi-structured qualitative interviews with relevant actors from all the three research sites. Interviews will be done with researchers, health promoters and medical professionals, as well as with patients in outpatient
  • Ethnographic observations. One part of the observations will take place in two outpatient clinics in Vienna where patients with obesity are treated. The second site for observations will be health promotion programs, where we will focus on health education courses sensitive to specific population groups.
  • Document analyses of scientific publications, educational and materials, policy documents, and other written documents at our three research sites.


Felt, Ulrike, Felder, Kay, Penkler, Michael (2016): How differences matter: tracing diversity practices in obesity treatment and health promotion. Sociology of Health & Illness Vol. 38 No. 5. DOI 10.1111/1467-9566.12446 <download>

Felder, Kay, Felt, Ulrike, Penkler, Michael (2015) 'Caring for Evidence. On the Intertwinement of Research and Care in an Obesity Outpatient Clinic.' Accepted for publication in Medical Anthropology <Download preprint>

Penkler, Michael, Felder, Kay and Felt, Ulrike (2015) 'Diagnostic Narratives: Creating Visions of Austrian Society in Print Media Accounts of Obesity', Science Communication 37(3):314-339. <Download preprint>

Felt, Ulrike, Felder, Kay, Öhler, Theresa and Penkler, Michael (2014) 'Timescapes of obesity: Coming to terms with a complex socio-medical phenomenon', health: An Interdisciplinary Journal for the Social Study of Health, Illness and Medicine 18 (6): 646-664. <Download>

Media Coverage

Beate Hausbichler, "Die vielen Schubladen für Übergewicht", Der Standard, 6. August 2015

Hanna Möller, "Das Übergewicht der Unterschiede", uni:view, 15. Juli 2015


Ulrike Felt
Tel: +43-1-4277-49611