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Mark Wheeler, University of California, Los Angeles
Everyone’s career takes unexpected twists and turns, and Gilbert Gee’s is no exception. The new editor of ASA’s Journal of Health and Social Behavior (JHSB) recalls a pivotal moment while he was a graduate student. He admits he was floundering in terms of what he wanted to do as a career, when he was asked by his advisor to give a speech before his peers on the question of race and health. It was an intimidating prospect for a young man in his early 20s with a penchant for wearing ripped blue jeans and old T-shirts (“Not unlike how I dress today,” he jokes), but it also served to gel his thinking on what direction he wanted his research career to take.
The question that came to fascinate him was, roughly, does racism make you sick? That became the subject of his talk, and today Gee, Professor of Community Health Sciences at the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA) Fielding School of Public Health, focuses his research on determining how racism and other forms of structural disadvantage contribute to health and health care disparities. He also examines local neighborhoods and issues of environmental justice using a multi-level and life-course perspective. That is, how racism impacts a person throughout the lifespan and the different ways it could change the course of a child’s life compared to that of an adult.
“From crib to coffin,” he has written, “race is invented, recorded, and reported. The classification of people’s race on their birth certificates, college applications, medical charts, and death certificates highlights the central role of racial stratification in U.S. society. This variation in time and exposure can contribute to racial inequities in life expectancy and other health outcomes across the life course and over generations.”
It is this research focus, heavily drawing from medical sociology that has naturally led him to the JHSB, first as contributor, then as a deputy editor, and now editor.
Gee comes to the role of JHSB Editor with a series of intellectual and institutional affiliations that link him to some of the central scholars in medical sociology. Among those are Sol Levine, founding chairman of the Department of Behavioral Sciences at Johns Hopkins University who wrote or edited more than 10 books and 100 articles examining the relationship between health and social behavior. Another example is Leo Reeder, who was a UCLA Professor of Sociology and Public Health, and helped establish the Behavioral Sciences Unit, now the Department of Community Health Sciences in the Fielding School of Public Health. Along with others, Reeder was a founding member of the American Sociological Association’s Medical Sociology Section, and a key contributor to the development of JHSB.
Gee’s intellectual connections to these leaders began at Oberlin College, his alma mater, where he learned to merge social activism with science. “I didn’t realize it at the time,” mused Gee, “but Oberlin really helped me understand that we can learn about social inequality through the ink of poets, the voices of our families, as well as through numbers on a table.” He received his doctorate in the Department of Behavioral Sciences at Johns Hopkins University, and then completed a postdoctoral fellowship in the Department of Sociology at Indiana University where the faculty included “not only some of the smartest, but also genuinely nicest people around.” Having been trained in the department Levine Chaired, he now works in the one Reeder founded.
Gee is also a faculty associate in the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, and his studies, which have been conducted in the United States, Japan, and the Philippines, have earned him a Merit Award from the National Institutes of Health and two Scientific and Technical Achievement awards from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Now, with Gee at the helm, JHSB, which was most recently housed at the University of Texas-Austin, moves to UCLA. Gee hopes to build on the legacy of the journal’s prior editors and further strengthen an already excellent journal that has served as the focal point for medical sociology research for over 50 years.
For one, he hopes to build on the social media successes prior editor Debra Umberson established—Facebook, Twitter, and podcasts—by adding a moderated blog to promote a dialogue about JHSB content. In addition to showcasing outstanding articles, the blog would pose a “question for the field,” asking readers for topics they would like to see covered in the journal, and promoting debate to extend the field beyond the limited means of letters and rejoinders. The use of social media would hopefully make the journal’s findings more accessible to young persons, including high school and undergraduate students.
Gee also hopes to follow up on the work of prior editors by promoting the journal at conferences, in newsletters, and email lists to encourage researchers from other disciplines to submit to the journal. This promotion of the journal would be enhanced at UCLA via the large networks of medical sociologists on campus as well as the large numbers of behavioral scientists within the Fielding School of Public Health.
In addition, Gee hopes to enhance the journal’s website to include all articles, or at least citations, from the journal’s illustrious history over more than half a century. This may include periodically featuring a classic study that had a major impact on the field.
“I am coming aboard at a time when the journal is in great shape and enormously influential,” says Gee, “and just generally in a very good place. It’s a humbling experience to take this on, and I intend to do everything possible to strengthen and continue its storied tradition.”