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Keywords:

  • causation;
  • dental public health;
  • health inequalities;
  • lifecourse;
  • oral epidemiology;
  • risk factor;
  • theory

Abstract

Since the early 1990s, there has been heated debate critically reflecting on social epidemiology. Yet, very little of this debate has reached oral epidemiology. This is no more noticeable than in the field of oral health inequalities. One of the significant achievements of social oral epidemiology has been the persistent documentation of social patterning of oral disease. Nevertheless, where social oral epidemiology has fallen down is going beyond description to explaining these patterns. Thinking how and in what way things happen, not just in relation to oral health inequalities but also more broadly, requires a more creative approach which links to scholarship outside of dentistry, including the work from critical epidemiologists to that within the social sciences. The aim of this review study is to provide a critical commentary on key aspects of more general epidemiological debates in order to inform and develop social oral epidemiology theory and methodology. In the first section, ‘Where are we now?’, six key debates are reflected upon: (i) analysis of variance versus analysis of causes, (ii) the fallacy of independent effects, (iii) black box thinking, (iv) theory and the understanding of mechanisms, (v) individualization of risk and (vi) the meaning of ‘social’. In the second section, ‘Where to next?’ we draw on a number of fundamental issues from within the social science literature in order to highlight possible channels of future inquiry. Our overriding goal throughout is to facilitate a critical engagement in order to improve understanding and generate knowledge in relation to population oral health.