Research type 
UK wide
Year of report 

Summary of findings


The State


  • Generally, the State was perceived as being about NHS hospitals, and health was considered in terms of ill-health and in particular about treatment of ill-health. The State had a primary role to treat ill-health
  • The State had a right to take actions or to make interventions that were strongly supportive of direct treatment: where a perceived behaviour was felt to be likely to cause death or damage (to self or others), the State had a remit to step in and strongly intervene
  • The role of the State in health and wellbeing was almost entirely conceptualised in terms of NHS hospitals. Respondents initially talked about the State having the right to ‘do whatever it needs to get you well’. There was no spontaneous awareness of the agents of the State such as schools, public park keepers, town planning or their role in supporting and maintaining health and wellbeing
  • Once the State had fulfilled this duty of direct treatment, respondents felt that its role was somewhat less clear and depended on the arguments made for risk to health


Archetype for role of the State


  • Across the four locations there was very little choice of Magician or Slave; respondents felt that in most matters the State should take the role of a Friend/Partner, Parent of Older Child, Parent of Younger Child or Boss
  • The archetype chosen was a compromise archetype, taking into consideration everything that the respondent understood about the current picture of society: the State was felt to be able to take a different role depending on the severity of the health risk to its citizens and their willingness to listen
  • For some respondents living in more challenging circumstances, their perception was that ‘others’ in society were not listening, and the State needed to intervene more strongly
  • Across seven health areas (smoking, obesity, alcohol, mental health, sexual health, public health, child health), it was felt that the degree of health risk argument varied widely
  • Most respondents, for example, felt that the argument for the health risks of smoking had been made fairly strongly; they were aware of the effects of smoking – even in small amounts – on their own health and on other around them. They felt therefore that the State had a much stronger legitimacy to act in ways that might be perceived as more paternalistic. Many chose the Archetype of the Parent of the Young Child when thinking particularly about issues like smoking. When reviewing some of the ‘as if’ scenarios suggested in relation to smoking, a distinction was drawn between those scenarios which the State had a right and a remit to enact (a legitimacy test) and those scenarios which the audience felt would be effective in achieving health and wellbeing ends (an efficacy test)
  • With regards to alcohol the picture was not so clearly in favour of a strong State intervention. The Archetype chosen for alcohol was generally Parent of Older Child - this acknowledges the fact that the State has a legitimate role in informing and supporting sensible drinking, but has no role in limiting choice of alcohol, punishing drinkers or compelling sobriety. Adults were broadly in favour of being allowed to drink what and when they chose - they tempered this with an awareness of the public disorder caused by ‘irresponsible drinkers’ and felt that a small amount of State intervention to ensure sensible drinking was justified
  • Sexual health split the audience into two - Teen pregnancy was felt to be a high risk to social wellbeing, but a lower risk to physical health (whilst STI treatment was perceived to be a higher physical health risk). Therefore, less intervention was accepted in the area of teen pregnancy, especially where the State intervention could be perceived to be promoting sexual activity
  • In this area, and in the area of obesity/weight management (see below), there was highest suspicion expressed that the State would get things wrong, did not understand the situation or was really not always acting in the best interests of the individual. Respondents were reluctant to give the State an archetype that would permit high levels of intervention in case they did not share ‘our values’.  In the main, where there was any doubt, they shied away from Boss and Parent of a Younger Child and towards Friend/Partner and Parent of an Older Child
  • In terms of child health, it was considered that the State had a remit to intervene to some greater extent where individuals were parenting ‘the next generation’ – more so than it had the right to intervene in the current generation’s behaviour. The State had the right to strongly direct behaviours (for new citizens) in order to create a significant societal change; only in the most severe cases – of social work – did the State have the right to act in a manner of compulsion. Largely, parental rights were felt to take precedence
  • Public health was an area where the State’s role was perceived to move from compulsion (in the case of a plague) to Parent of Younger Child (in areas where the health risks had been substantiated by research evidence – fluoridisation of water was broadly accepted), through to Parent of Older Child or even the lighter Friend (in the case of flu jabs). Here again, it was felt more acceptable to compel new joiners to the society (children coming of age as well as new immigrants to the UK) than to compel current members of UK society
  • In terms of Weight Management, the argument in this area is still strongly perceived to be about the aesthetic, rather than the health risks. However, people can see that not taking exercise connects to poor cardiovascular health, and thus in a roundabout way, being overweight leads to not being able to run, which then leads to poor health. Given this, and given the current perception that overweight is becoming more of an issue, the State was generally permitted to make certain interventions that fell into the archetype of Parenting a Young Child (to promote positive behaviour – through advertising carrots, for example – and to limit options for negative behaviour – through limiting commercial companies’ advertising of junk food on the television and through limiting portion sizes sold)
  • In terms of mental health, the State’s role veered between Friend/Partner (in cases of mild mental ‘unwellness’ e.g. mild depression), through to Boss – where the State had a legitimate role to play in compelling dangerously mentally ill patients to engage in treatment programmes. The key distinction that seemed to be being drawn was whether the patient evoked a danger to self or others – there was no recognition of the wider negative effects on citizens and society of milder mental illnesses and no understanding of the social impact of depression, for example


Ascending levels of state intervention

From the research, there emerged eight ascending levels of State intervention in health - these levels of intervention are deemed to be appropriate (as indicated above) depending on the health risks understood by the population. Once the State moves from direct treatment, these levels should be followed carefully. It is vital NOT to violate the first two levels unless the health risk is extremely likely to result in direct harm (and therefore the need for direct treatment). Where possible, and if in any doubt at all, the State should ONLY stay at the first two levels:


  • Protect our freedom of choice
  • Provide intelligent and accurate information so that we can make our choices


These two levels tended to be seen as embodied by a Friend/Partner archetype: all things being equal, these were where the State was perceived to be able to ‘do no harm’ in taking actions. They were the default reference point against which further levels were judged.


  • Promote information about the positive choice (advertising carrots, advertising drinking fewer units or lower alcohol drinks, sexual health education in schools)
  • Limit promotion and accessibility of the negative choice (limiting vending machines in schools, limiting junk food advertising)
  • Make engaging in the positive choice of greater benefit than not engaging in any choice or in making negative choices (reward mainstream individuals who take regular exercise, offer discounts off healthier food to all, allow non-smokers to stay inside in the warm, offer free tyre check to the designated non-drinking driver)
  • Offer support to drive people to join society and to engage in positive choice (offering stop smoking support to those who want to ‘come into’ mainstream society and benefit from belonging, DO NOT reward, bribe or pay adults who are ‘outside healthy society’ to take up healthy behaviours – DO find ways to help them join in if they want to be helped. Paying young teens to retain long-acting reversible contraceptives was considered to be possibly allowable, given that the girls were seen as children – paying adult women to be implanted was not considered acceptable)
  • Compel newcomers to the society to engage in positive behaviour (compel immigrants to have tuberculosis vaccinations and health checks before entering the country, compel children to have vaccinations before starting school, raise ages for buying non-healthy things to a level where they are likely to make younger adults less likely to access them from the start – alcohol drinking age to 21, for example)
  • Compel everyone in the society to engage in positive behaviour (almost never reached in any health area, except in dangerous mental health cases where there is seen to be a need to compel everyone in the society to NOT be a danger to each other, and in zero tolerance for drink driving, where the argument for direct harm has been made and accepted by the population)


Research objectives


The key objective for the research was to examine and establish perceptions of the role and reach of the State in the health and wellbeing of its citizens.

Respondents were recruited to represent a range of variables: socio-economic group, age, lifestage and gender.

Key questions included:


  • ‘What is the role of the State in your health and wellbeing currently?’ (a descriptive measure of the State’s role)
  • ‘What should be the role of the State in your health and wellbeing in the future?’ (a prescriptive measure)




A programme of qualitative research was conducted with a broad sample of the general public (aged 16 to 74) across 4 locations in the UK (Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol and Slough). This was to understand public perceptions towards the role of the State in public health and wellbeing.

Quick summary


Research to examine and establish perceptions of the role and reach of the State in the health and wellbeing of its citizens.

Audience Summary





16 to 74 years





  • 18 respondents were invited to each of the 4 locations (Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol, Slough) and attended a ‘hall evening’
  • Respondents were split into trios and asked to build a personal montage from a range of visual pieces provided 
  • Respondents were then interviewed face-to-face about their montage board.  Interviews also covered topics around personal health, responsibilities of the State and wellbeing
  • Respondents were also asked to consider a range of scenarios in specific health areas to help respondents define their idea of the role and reach of the State
  • Finally, respondents were asked to choose an archetype card that broadly covered how they perceived the State in relation to their health and wellbeing. The archetype’s were: Boss, Friend/Partner, Magician, Parent of Young Child, Slave and Parent of Adult Child


Data collection methodology

Depth interviews

Sample size


Four ‘hall evenings’ (n=18 in each location, total n=72)

Fieldwork dates


July 2009

Agree to publish



Research agency


COI Number


Report format