Illustration: Andrea D’Aquino


How Social Networks Influence Public Health

Group dynamics may help encourage the adoption of cleaner cooking fuel in India and beyond.

A pioneering study led by Boston College researchers has found that personal networks in India could play a pivotal role in the adoption of cleaner cooking fuel, which would represent a significant step toward improving global public health.

“This is the first report to show that just like with tobacco use, obesity, or physical activity—where our networks play a role in shaping our behaviors and decisions—personal networks are also associated with what kinds of stoves rural poor use,” said BC Assistant Professor of Social Work Praveen Kumar, coauthor of the new report, which was published in Environmental Research Letters.

In rural India, particularly among those living in poverty, people rely widely on solid fuels such as firewood, charcoal, animal dung, and crop residue for cooking. It has been estimated that household air pollution, to which indoor cooking contributes, accounted for roughly 600,000 premature deaths in India in 2019, making it a leading cause of preventable deaths in the nation of 1.4 billion residents. That’s why health officials have worked for decades to try to shift people to cleaner fuel sources, such as liquefied petroleum gas. But progress has been slow, due to economic, educational, and demographic barriers.

For the recent study, researchers queried 198 respondents from roughly thirty villages in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. They found that the more peers and friends a respondent has who use cleaner cooking technology, the more likely the respondent is to also use cleaner cooking technology—and vice versa, Kumar said.

The study’s coauthors include Boston College School of Social Work Dean Gautam Yadama, as well as researchers from Harvard Medical School, Ohio State University, Chile’s Universidad Mayor, and Washington University, St. Louis. Their findings have implications for policymakers seeking ways to continue to convince poor households to shift to cleaner cooking fuels. “If personal networks are so important,” Kumar said, “there is a need to find residents who are influencers or opinion leaders and build targeted awareness campaigns involving them.”

Subsequent research should explore the threshold of personal networks with cleaner stoves that could shift households to cleaner cooking, Kumar said. “The transition from traditional cooking to clean cooking is critically important—not just in India,” he said. “This is a global public health problem.” 

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