Date of Award




Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Department of Sociology

Content Description

1 online resource (vii, 158 pages) : illustrations (some color), maps (some color)

Dissertation/Thesis Chair

Tse-Chuan Yang

Committee Members

Glenn Deane, Kate Strully


Bourdieu's Theory of Capital, County-level Analysis, Deaths of Despair, Premature death, Global Financial Crisis, 2008-2009, Substance abuse, Suicide

Subject Categories

Public Health | Sociology


The overarching goal of this dissertation is to examine a recent rise in rates of deaths from suicide, alcohol, and drugs, labeled together as “deaths of despair” in the United States using Bourdieu’s theory of capital. Although the deaths of despair phenomenon is a product of a complex process related to various material and non-material factors, there is no theoretical framework that is able to account for different domains of predictors. Thus, this dissertation aims to fill this gap by drawing on Bourdieu’s theory of capital and systematically investigating the relationships of mortality rates attributed to suicide, alcohol, and opioid use with economic, social, and cultural capital. This project empirically examines Bourdieu’s theory of capital by compiling unique county-level dataset from various sources, such as the restricted Multiple Cause of Death files, the American Community Survey, and Facebook data. The methods used in this dissertation include path analysis modeling and multilevel linear regression modeling. The first empirical study examines the association between economic capital and the deaths of despair mortality rate, with a special attention on the role of the economic recession in 2007-2009 and the county’s economic structure (blue-collar counties vs. non-blue-collar counties). This study also establishes economic capital-stress pathways to better understand the mechanisms through which economic capital affects the deaths of despair mortality rate. Results show that 1) economic capital, unemployment rate in particular, is a consistent predictor of the mortality rate. 2) The pathways via stress are also significant. 3) The direct and indirect effects of economic capital are stronger among blue-collar counties than non-blue-collar counties and economic recession period models than post-economic recession period models. The second empirical study introduces social capital measures (i.e., social network and social class) constructed based on Bourdieu’s concept of social capital with an emphasis on the role of social class and compares results obtained from Putnam’s social capital to those from Bourdieu’s. Results suggest that there are significant relationships between Bourdieu’s social capital measures and the deaths of despair mortality rates and that the relationships remain significant even after including Putnam’s social capital index. Furthermore, the results show that the associations between social network and the mortality rates vary by the level of social class. The aim of the third empirical study is to construct county-level cultural capital indices based on Bourdieu’s concept and examine whether they are related to the deaths of despair mortality rates. Results suggest that among the three states of cultural capital, objectified cultural capital (i.e., the density of museums and libraries) is a robust predictor of the mortality rates. By synthesizing Bourdieu’s theory of capital and other mainstream theories in public health, this dissertation not only highlights the importance of both material and non-material factors in understanding the deaths of despair phenomenon but also suggests a way to examine a current health problem through the traditional sociological theory.