Interview with Lee Monaghan on obesity ‘epidemics’


For the original version of this interview, and other TCS material, go to the TCS Website

In this supplement to the new issue of Body & Society (16.2), Simon Dawes interviews Lee F. Monaghan about his co-authored article on obesity ‘epidemics’


Simon Dawes: Would you agree that there is an obesity epidemic, and to what extent do you think that weight is a valid determinant of ‘health, well-being and moral worth’?

Lee F Monaghan: ‘Epidemic’ is a term often used by those seeking to rouse public concern, but you cannot catch obesity like cholera or some other contagious pathogen which has more accurately been described as an epidemic. In the case of obesity, dramatic sounding terms like ‘epidemic’ are used to catch people’s attention and add a sense of urgency to various entrepreneurs’ claims that something should be done about obesity, and urgently. This moral panic is disproportionate to the ‘problem’. Apart from statistical extremes, weight or BMI seems to be an unreliable marker for biomedical health, measured in terms of longevity, for example; indeed, epidemiological evidence indicates that ‘overweight’ is associated with increased longevity. Well-being, a dimension of ‘health’, is also highly subjective and socially contingent – bodybuilders seeking to gain ‘weight’ (lean muscle mass) would certainly be happier if their BMI increased! With regards to moral worth, the intensification of ‘obesity epidemic’ rhetoric draws from, reproduces and reinforces everyday intolerance towards fatness as a socially constructed stigma.

SD: What are ‘obesity epidemic entrepreneurs’?

LFM: We define ‘obesity epidemic entrepreneurs’ in an ideal typical sense to refer to actors who socially construct medicalised fatness as a health problem for other people and/or themselves. ‘Modes of entrepreneurship’ is perhaps more of an apt descriptor as we are less concerned with concrete individuals than with definitional practices. That said, we identify individuals who publicly enact the role of the obesity epidemic entrepreneur for illustrative purposes.

SD: Your article presents a classificatory typology of ideal types of these entrepreneurs. Could you briefly tell us about these ideal types, and explain why such a typology is necessary? Could you also tell us a little about the theoretical framework in which you construct this typology?

LFM: We consider six main ideal typical entrepreneurs, which we call: creators, amplifiers/moralizers, legitimators, supporters, enforcers/administrators and the entrepreneurial self. Briefly, creators include obesity scientists who set rationalised benchmarks for measuring so-called overweight and obesity in the population (e.g. the BMI); amplifiers/moralizers refers to media practices comprising disproportionate reporting, sensationalising and moralising; the government act as key legitimators, especially when they commission reports as part of an inventory exercise; supporters include two subtypes (campaigners and opportunists) who either lobby for increased action among other entrepreneurs or directly seek to make profits; enforcers/administrators include those in the frontline in the war on obesity, such as clinicians and slimming club consultants who administer ‘solutions’ to the ‘epidemic’; and, finally, the entrepreneurial self is a ubiquitous type within the new public health and basically refers to people in everyday life who seek personally to lose weight/fat.

Howard Becker’s interactionist idea of the ‘moral entrepreneur’, as articulated several decades ago in the sociology of deviance, served as our immediate source of inspiration. However, we have significantly modified this concept and drawn on an eclectic range of theory to begin critically to make sense of the enterprising act of socially constructing a public health problem in a messy empirical world. Our paper draws from, for example, moral panic theory and Foucauldian informed writings on the new public health, though we also include political economy perspectives given the steering medium of money.


Lee F. Monaghan is Senior Lecturer in Sociology, University of Limerick.

Simon Dawes is the Editorial Assistant of Theory, Culture & Society and Body & Society, and the Content Editor of the TCS Website.

You can read the article, ‘Obesity Epidemic Entrepreneurs: Types, Practices and Interests’ by Lee F. Monaghan, Robert Hollands and Gary Pritchard, and the rest of the issue, here

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