Professor John Germov brings intellectual gusto and a sociologist's palate to solving wicked health problems...

A Healthy Appetite for Research

Professor John Germov brings intellectual gusto and a sociologist's palate to solving wicked health problems.

Professor John GermovWhat influences whether we lead a healthy or unhealthy lifestyle? What affects the choices we make about what we eat and drink? These are the kinds of questions that fascinate the sociologist in Professor John Germov.

'Personal preference of course plays a part in all these matters. Yet, there are distinct social patterns in how and what we eat. For example, personal preference can't explain "national" cuisines. Think of India and curry, Japan and sushi. There are always larger forces at work – social, cultural, economic and historical.'

Investigating these forces – what John refers to collectively as the "social appetite" – has resulted in his large body of research on the sociology of food and nutrition. He's examined the social determinants of food consumption and production, including the influence of gender and class on eating habits; the relationships between food, identity and body image; the public health impact of fast food and the rise of the 'slow food' movement; and how the Australian diet has changed.

This has been possible due to a ground-breaking interdisciplinary collaboration with a Dietitian scholar, which led to an international book for which he and his colleague are widely known – A Sociology of Food and Nutrition: The Social Appetite.

'Broadly you could say this work contradicts the old adage "You are what you eat". I've found the inverse to be true: what you eat tends to be strongly influenced by the conditions in which you live and work.'

After indulging his sociological passion for food for many years, John found himself developing an intellectual predilection for wine – a logical progression, he claims. 'I joke with my colleagues that since I was already studying food, it was natural to match this with a study of wine. And we are in the Hunter Valley after all.'

Surprisingly little research has been done on the wine sector in Australia, and particularly the Hunter. Nevertheless John is intent on changing this, through his leadership of the Wine Studies Research Network. This recently-formed interdisciplinary cluster of scholars from the humanities and social sciences is unearthing the history of the region's wine industry – the oldest in Australia – and unravelling the complex interactions between production, consumption, and the evolution of 'taste'. John himself has been collaborating extensively with an historian on Australia's rise as a nation of wine producers and wine drinkers.

His practice of interdisciplinary research ideally suits his role as President of the Australasian Council of Deans of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (DASSH). As President he aims to promote the significant contribution of research made by the arts, social sciences and humanities disciplines, which 'underpin public policies and programs, informing and shaping the "big issues" that are driving social and economic change – issues as diverse as the impact of an ageing population, the balance of land use and economic development, and understanding health behaviour.'

John's abiding interest in the social origins of health has led him also to investigate the darker side of drinking. Funded by an ARC Linkage grant and in partnership with University Colleges Australia and state health departments, he recently conducted a large study with several colleagues investigating the uses and abuses of alcohol by students on university campuses, with a focus on uncovering the effectiveness of harm minimisation strategies. While the study uncovered a concerning 'culture of intoxication', it also found that students use a variety of measures to minimise potential harms to themselves and others.

'One outcome of our project will be recommendations, based on all the evidence we've collected through surveys, interviews and focus groups, about the kinds of harm minimisation practices that could be introduced on campuses in an effective manner.'

This project stands at the intersection of what John calls his 'curiosity-driven research for the sake of understanding' and his growing engagement with 'intervention research to make a difference'. It also combines his interest in the sociology of food and drink with his other long-standing research interest in the social determinants of health – how living and working conditions contribute to ill-health, or help prevent it.

In this field John has been prolific, and he is known especially for his book Second Opinion: An Introduction to Health Sociology (5th edn), which was recently published in a Canadian edition. He has produced 19 books to date with prestigious publishers such as Oxford University Press, Melbourne University Press, Allen & Unwin, and Pearson; including his introductory text, Public Sociology: An Introduction to Australian Society, which has shaped the way sociology is taught and studied in Australia.

John leads the newly-formed Social Determinants of Health Research Group, and has been active in the Priority Research Centre for Gender, Health and Ageing.

One of his most recent projects – not predominantly research but undertaken in one of his managerial capacities – serendipitously links his knowledge of health issues with his early doctoral research on the sociology of work organisations. As leader of the University's Future Workforce Strategy, he is overseeing the transformation of UoN into a 'healthy university' using World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations for creating health-enhancing workplaces; these include everything from improving the physical environment to staff social and mental well-being to healthy food options.

'This project is enabling me to improve the social conditions in which people live and work so as to have a positive impact on their health. It's letting me live and breathe what I've been researching for years.'

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