Perceptions and Imaginations of Obesity

as a Socio-scientific Problem in the Austrian Context

Principal investigator: Ulrike Felt; Project collaborators: Kay Felder, Theresa Öhler, Michael Penkler

BMWF/GEN-AU - 03/2009-03/2012

Obesity as a Scientific and Societal Problem

In recent years, obesity as a public health problem has acquired increasing prominence both on the policy agenda and in public discourse. In these discussions, obesity is predominantly framed as a societal problem requiring urgent action, as the term “global epidemic” coined by the World Health Organization in 2004 amply suggests. Also the EU’s public health program addresses “the obesity problem” by focusing on nutrition and physical activity. The first Austrian Adipositas report published in 2006 joins the choir urging to act. Increasing advertisements for new medication and a growing number of public events to address and educate citizens to look after their bodies are the most recent developments as yet.

Scientific knowledge and techno-scientific innovations play a key role in this context. They largely frame what is to be seen as “the problem”, its management as well as potential solutions. At the same time, key-issues, such as what counts as a healthy lifestyle, but also the role of biomedical/genetic explanations of obesity, are notoriously disputed. Different actors, from life style professionals, over researchers to medical doctors claim expertise on “the phenomenon” and more or less directly on actions to be taken as well. Simultaneously, our ways of knowing and explaining phenomena are inextricably linked to cultural, historical and political contexts. This holds in a particular way for our perception of the body. Thus we need to understand obesity not as a problem simply “out there” but as “co-produced” in a complex interaction process between scientific and societal actors.

Project Goals - Understanding the Co-production of Obesity

To develop a deeper understanding of these processes of co-production, the project investigates the different ways in which “obesity” is conceptualized, imagined, and thus acted upon in different arenas from the research labs over policy making to everyday settings. In order to do so, we will in a first step analyze the diversity of societal positions on obesity and how they relate to different forms of knowledge. Concretely this means to study how media, different stakeholders and citizens frame and make sense of obesity.

Secondly, we will study the multiple ways in which obesity and related body functions are conceptualized and approached in different kinds of genomic research.
Finally, bringing the analysis of the different arenas together we will focus on how specific forms of knowledge and claims acquire importance in framing an issue such as obesity, on relations between different forms of knowledge in the different arenas, and on what counts as public proof.

Methodological Approach

To investigate the co-production of scientific knowledge and of particular perceptions of obesity, we will employ a variety of social science methods:

  • Focus groups with citizens
  • Qualitative interviews with selected participants of the focus groups
  • Qualitative stakeholder interviews with researchers, life-style professionals, and policy makers in the public health domain
  • Analysis of Austrian news media to map the dominant framings of obesity and related research
  • Analysis of relevant policy documents in the Austrian and EU context

Inducing and Facilitating Reflection - On the Transdisciplinary Relevance of the Project

Beyond its scientific aims the project seeks to contribute to a broader societal reflection on the construction and framing of obesity as a public health problem and its governance. This also means sharing and reflecting with stakeholders the variety of understandings of obesity developed in the citizen focus groups.


The project is part of a bigger research consortium on the “Genomics Of Lipid-Associated Disorders” (GOLD III).


Ulrike Felt
Tel: +43 1 4277-49611 or -49601