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Health literacy as social practice: Migration, vulnerability, and hope

This PhD project is part of the flagship project Multilingualism and Globalization: Perspectives from Norway.

Ingvild Badhwar Valen-Sendstad (photo: Nadia Frantsen/UiO)

Ingvild Badhwar Valen-Sendstad (photo: Nadia Frantsen/UiO)

This PhD project asks how women with migrant backgrounds practice health literacy in Norwegian institutional spaces, as well as how their practices and possibilities are regulated and organized by broader social structures. Health literacy is “linked to literacy and entails people’s knowledge, motivation and competences to access, understand, appraise, and apply health information in order to make judgments and take decisions in everyday life concerning healthcare, disease prevention and health promotion to maintain or improve quality of life during the life course” (Sørensen et al., 2012, p. 3). In this study, I investigate an under-examined aspect of health literacy, namely power dynamics and language ideology.

Specifically, I employ linguistic-ethnographic methods (Heller et al., 2018) to investigate the resources that women with migrant backgrounds mobilize to navigate the Norwegian Labour and Welfare Administration (NAV) and healthcare institutions while on long-term sick leave from work. I set out to examine the following research questions:

  1. How is health communication negotiated between women with migrant backgrounds and Norwegian public institutions? And how do these institutions manage linguistically diversity?
  2. How do employees in public institutions understand health literacy?
  3. How do women with migrant backgrounds practice health literacy to manage  their health, and to pursue health promoting work lifestyles in the Norwegian labor market?

To understand these practices and processes, I use different theoretical tools, such as Bourdieu’s different forms of capital and language habitus (Bourdieu, 1991),  Foucault’s discourse analysis (Foucault, 1997) and Ahmed’s work on emotions, bodies, and spaces (Ahmed, 2014) . I also employ sociolinguistic notions, such as language investments (Norton, 2013) and the lived experience of language (Busch, 2015).

I combine different kinds of ethnographic data material, including semi-structured interviews, participant observation, digital interaction on public sector websites, case reports, and policy documents.

My PhD project seeks to contribute to research on migration, health literacy, and institutional communication.


Ahmed, S. (2014). The Cultural Politics of Emotion.

Bourdieu, P. (1991). Language and symbolic power (J. B. Thompson, Ed.; G. Raymond & M. Adamson, Trans.). Harvard University Press.

Busch, B. (2015) Expanding the Notion of the Linguistic Repertoire: On the Concept of Spracherleben – The Lived Experience of Language, Applied Linguistic, 38:3: 340-358.  

Foucault, M. (1997). The essential works of Foucault, 1954-1984 (P. Rabinow, Ed.; R. Hurley, Trans.). New Press.

Heller, M., Pietikäinen, S., and Pujolar, J. (2018) Critical Sociolinguistic Research Methods. Studying Language Issues That Matter. New York: Routledge.

Norton, B. (2013). Identity and Language Learning: Extending the Conversation (2. Edition). Multilingual Matters.

Sørensen, K., Van den Broucke, S., Fullam, J., Doyle, G., Pelikan, J., Slonska, Z., & Brand, H. (2012). Health literacy and public health: A systematic review and integration of definitions and models. BMC Public Health, 12(1), 80.

Tags: Management of multilingualism, Communication, Ethnography, Language Ideologies, gender, Health, Literacy
Published Dec. 17, 2021 7:17 PM - Last modified Apr. 13, 2022 12:13 AM