Why it’s important to look at ‘social harms’ collectively

Christina Pantazis, one of the editors of our new series ‘Studies in Social Harm’ explains why she feels studying social harm collectively rather than within individual academic disciplines is now more necessary than ever…

medium-9703Each year and worldwide, millions of adults and children are killed or experience death, and many more are hurt or injured, from causes that are entirely preventable.

For example, the most recent estimates reveal that close to 7 million children under 5 years of age died from diseases such as pneumonia, diarrhoea and malaria or due to pre-birth or intrapartum complications;(1) 1.2 million people died on the world’s roads;(2) there were almost half a million deaths as a result of intentional homicide across the world;(3) and there were 378,000 global war deaths
annually between 1985 and 1994.(4)

Distinct disciplines

The general tendency of academic researchers has been to address the nature and causes of such harms, and their remedies, from within distinct and separate disciplines – primarily, social epidemiology, social policy, criminology and development studies. The nature of academic disciplinary boundaries is such that interdisciplinary, and multidisciplinary, approaches are rarely applied to the analyses of such harms.

The social harm approach, with its recent origins in the publication Beyond criminology: Taking harm seriously, by Paddy Hillyard and others in 2004,(5) sought to remedy this academic lacuna. Written as a critique of criminology, the authors sought to problematise the basis on which a distinct number of harms came to be seen as crimes and dealt with through an expensive, ineffective and ultimately socially harmful criminal justice system.


At the same time they drew attention to other (potentially more harmful) events and situations that failed to attract the crime label, and therefore, the same level of social opprobrium. Their response was to call for a new social harm approach (or zemiological approach, taken from the Greek word zemia, meaning harm) which would encompass a typology of social harms, irrespective of legal categorisation, and which could be responded to through progressive and democratic social policies.

The book series Studies in Social Harm seeks to offer a contribution to the disciplinary agenda of zemiology by encouraging fresh thinking on the nature of, and responses to, serious harms afflicting individuals and communities, both nationally and globally.

It aims to provide intellectual (both in terms of theoretical and empirical) coherence to the study of social harms, drawing on interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary and different and innovative methodological approaches. Ultimately the book series aims to enhance knowledge on how social harms are mediated through social structures such as class, race, and gender, and are underpinned through different modes of social organisation.


1. UN Inter-agency Group for Child Mortality Estimation (2012) Levels and trends in child mortality: Report 2012, New York: UNICEF
2. World Health Organization (2013) Global status report on road safety 2013: Supporting a decade of action, Geneva: WHO
3. UNODC (2013) Global study on homicide 2013: Trends/contexts/data, Vienna: United National Office on Drugs and Crime
4. Obermeyr, Z., Murray, C. and Gakidou, E. (2008) ‘Fifty years of violent war deaths from Vietnam to Bosnia: analysis of data from the world health survey programme’, British Medical Journal, vol 336, no 7659, pp 1482-86
5. Hillyard, P., Pantazis, C., Tombs, S. and Gordon, D. (2004) Beyond criminology: Taking harm seriously, London: Pluto Press


Environmental harm [FC]Harmful societies [FC] Both Environmental Harm  by Rob White and Harmful Societies by Simon Pemberton are already available in the Social Harm series and can be purchased from the Policy Press website. For more information and to follow discussions on the subject of Social Harm you can also follow @socialharm on twitter. 



Coming soon in the Social Harm Series:
New perspectives on Islamophobia and social harm by Chris Allen – September 2016
A sociology of harm by Lynne Copson – September 2016
Labour exploitation and work-based harm by Sam Scott – October 2016
Pharmaceuticals and social harm by Sarah Payne – April 2017

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