Liberal societies such as the UK, US and Australia are among the most harmful to their citizens, according to new research from the University of Birmingham.

And the austerity programmes unfolding across Europe are likely to increase the ‘social harms’ experienced by people in those countries.

A new book by Dr Simon Pemberton, an expert on social harm – defined as the avoidable injuries caused by the way a society is organised – looks at measures such as suicide, road traffic accidents, obesity, poverty and unemployment across 31 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries.

The book, Harmful Societies: Understanding social harm, is published by Policy Press at the University of Bristol.

Dr Pemberton, a Birmingham Fellow in the Schools of Social Policy and Law at the University of Birmingham, reveals that similarly-placed capitalist societies vary greatly in their ability to protect their citizens from these harms. He shows that harm is not inevitable or unavoidable but rather a product of the way we choose to organise the societies in which we live.

Social democratic countries such as Denmark, Norway and Sweden, for example, are the least harmful capitalist societies according to the range of measures studied by Dr Pemberton. They are closely followed by ‘northern corporatist’ societies including Germany, France and Austria.

However, neo-liberal societies such as Chile, Mexico, Turkey and Russia, and liberal societies including the UK, US and Australia, are among the most harmful to their citizens.

‘Decommodified’ societies, characterised by high expenditure on welfare benefits, services, education and healthcare, show reduced instances of poverty, financial insecurity, homicide and infant mortality, among other harms, whereas austerity programmes in countries such as Greece, Spain, Portugal and the UK are eroding and dismantling many of the features that protect populations from social harm.

Dr Pemberton said: ‘Every year, thousands of adults and children in the UK die or are injured as a result of preventable events. For example, more than 18,000 people in England and Wales die because of the effects of winter, while 29,000 lives are ended prematurely from air pollution and 13,000 people across Britain die from lung disease or cancers contracted via the workplace.

‘Far from being inevitable events, such social harms are the result of the way we choose to organise our societies. There is no “natural” rate of death from the cold, road traffic injuries or obesity, nor are there natural rates of poverty, financial insecurity or social isolation.

‘In close proximity to the United Kingdom, there are countries that are much better than our own at preventing premature death and other harms. This research challenges politicians and their advisers to learn lessons from similarly-placed countries so that practical policies can be developed to reduce unnecessary and preventable harms.’


For more information, or to arrange an interview with Dr Pemberton, please contact Stuart Gillespie in the University of Birmingham press office on +44 (0)121 414 9041. Out of hours, please call +44 (0)7789921165.

  • Harmful Societies: Understanding social harm by Simon Pemberton is published by Policy Press. It can be ordered from the Policy Press website.
  • Dr Simon Pemberton is a Birmingham Fellow jointly appointed to the Schools of Law and Social Policy at the University of Birmingham. He has researched and published widely in the areas of corporate and state harm, poverty and inequality, crime, social harm and criminalisation.
  • Policy Press is a leading social science publisher based at the University of Bristol and is committed to publishing books that make a difference. Contact: Kathryn King, Marketing Manager, on +44 (0)117 954 5952.