GL SOCI 3230- Sociology of Health and Illness
September 17 , 2013
A Sociological Approach to Health, Illness and Medicine
Why “Sociology” of health and illness?
o Illness happens, is experienced, and is addressed in a social context
o Some people and groups are more likely than others to develop illness regardless of
their individual genetic makeup
The sociology of health and illness studies the social causes and consequences of illness, disease,
disability, and death and describes the ways in which illness affects/is affected by patterns of
social interaction among people, groups and institutions.
The sociology of medicine studies the ways in which the medical system constructs what is
considered an illness out of a variety of symptoms and the organized ways in which this system
responds to illness
Topics of Discussion
Sociological questions about the state of our health examples:
o How is disease distributed among the poor and the rich, the powerful and powerless?
o Are there diseases exacerbated by the socio-demographic structure of a population?
o How the experience of disease and death changes in a socio-historical context (e.g.
differences in causes for mortality and morbidity between developed and developing
Sociological approaches/theories to studying health and illness that shape the topics of
o Structural functionalism, conflict theory/feminist theory, symbolic interactionism
Structural Functionalism: Distinctive characteristics
Sociology is supposed to study health and illness as systemic things, attributes of society as a
Sociology’s task is to explain the world in universal laws of causality and it does this by
considering social facts (systemic characteristics of society) as the most important kind of data
Sociology tries to explain the impact of social facts on human behvaiours, attitudes, feelings
The social facts should be treated as “things”, i.e. objective, real conditions which are external to
human behavior or actions and determine this behavior/actions
Social facts are reflected in the social structure, i.e. can be seen in systemic aspects (e.g., norms
of behvaiour, social institutions, social relationships—such as the patient-doctor relationship,
the gender relationship, etc.)
Human behvaiour is objectively (quantitatively) measurable through experiments and surveys GL SOCI 3230- Sociology of Health and Illness
September 17 , 2013
Example: Talcott Parsons’s concept of the “Sick Role” (1951)
People are involved in a variety of social roles (as parents, workers, church members, etc.):
sickness may cause a breakdown in the performance of these roles sickness should therefore
be studied as a social role in itself
The sick role is a set of rights and duties, e.g. it legitimates sub-standard performance or
disengagement from other social roles but requires that the sick person makes moves to get
4 components to the sick role:
o The sick person is exempt from the usual social roles that all other people perform
o The sick person is not responsible for his/her sickness
o The sick person should try to get well
o …including by seeking technically competent help from a physician and should
cooperate with the physician
o For how long could one claim special treatment?
o Preventive medicine requires the patient to take responsibility for his/her condition
o Not all diseases depend on the sufferer’s wish to get well…
o The dominant allopathic medicine is a system that seems to cure the body/organ but
ignores the whole human being more and more people seek alternative health
Other examples: How do they do it?
More recent structural functionalist studies assume that the aspects of social structure have a
constraining (independent) effect on the individuals/behaviours and in this sense can determine
their chances to become sick
o E.g. social status (structural positions of individuals which are seen as social facts)
determine their diet/exercise habits, use of medical services, levels of compliance with
medical advice, etc.
o But the institutions/ social groups in which individuals are embedded can have their
own separate determining effects (e.g., the family, the neighborhood, the urban/rural
area, working environment – these are all related and create a system of chances for
illness and individuals).
...and How do they do it?