Date of Award

2013

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group

Sociology

First Advisor

Charles L. Bosk

Abstract

The definition, significance and consequence of the disease of obesity have changed dramatically in the last few decades. Formerly regarded as a common comorbidity of other chronic diseases, obesity has become a discrete medical condition deserving public attention and resources. This dissertation studies the organizational and cultural process by which obesity came to recognized as a public problem through three interrelated papers critiquing claimsmaking via expert authority, the news media apparatus, and populist television. Chapter 1 analyzes the medical literature on obesity published between 1980-2000 in order to trace the social trajectory of obesity as a contemporary public problem through interrelated three stages of medical moral entrepreneurship: claimsmaking, consolidation, and institutionalization. It argues that the efforts of medical moral entrepreneurs moderated public scrutiny of individual health behavior but expanded the jurisdiction of biomedicine. Chapter 2 examines how the print news media reports on obesity as a predominantly biomedical and behavioral problem, specifically parsing who gets to say what about obesity. Based on a sample (n = 256) of news stories published in the New York Times and USA Today between 1995-2004, this paper analyzes how expert and lay statements are used to package obesity as a medicalized human interest story. Findings indicate media support of individualized blame during this period, which promoted clinical treatment to reform obese people and problematic health behavior. Chapter 3 considers how celebrity entrepreneurs leverage the makeover television genre as a popular media platform for demonstrating lifestyle and behavior interventions. Whenever celebrity entrepreneurs adopt new moral causes, their influence with audiences must be evaluated against personal brand promotion and misrepresentation of the original mission. In sum, this study shows how moral entrepreneurs are very much invested in promoting the obesity problem while also making claims to its imminent solvability. The obesity epidemic remains a serious health threat because expert authorities, methods, and stakeholders construct it as such.

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