Cultural sensitivity in public health: Defined and demystified

Ken Resnicow, Tom Baranowski, Jasjit S. Ahluwalia, Ronald L. Braithwaite

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

879 Scopus citations


There is consensus that health promotion programs should be culturally sensitive (CS). Yet, despite the ubiquitous nature of CS within public health research and practice, there has been surprisingly little attention given to defining CS or delineating a framework for developing culturally sensitive programs and practitioners. This paper describes a model for understanding CS from a public health perspective; describes a process for applying this model in the development of health promotion and disease prevention interventions; and highlights research priorities. Cultural sensitivity is defined by two dimensions: surface and deep structures. Surface structure involves matching intervention materials and messages to observable, "superficial" characteristics of a target population. This may involve using people, places, language, music, food, locations, and clothing familiar to, and preferred by, the target audience. Surface structure refers to how well interventions fit within a specific culture. Deep structure involves incorporating the cultural, social, historical, environmental and psychological forces that influence the target health behavior in the proposed target population. Whereas surface structure generally increases the "receptivity" or "acceptance" of messages, deep structure conveys salience. Techniques, borrowed from social marketing and health communication theory, for developing culturally sensitive interventions are described. Research is needed to determine the effectiveness of culturally sensitive programs.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)10-21
Number of pages12
JournalEthnicity and Disease
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 1999


  • Cultural Sensitivity
  • Ethnicity
  • Health Communication
  • Intervention Development


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