The Sociology Of Health And Illness

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The Sociology of Health and Illness

The Sociology Of Health And Illness

Definitions of health and illness and medical sociology

Human beliefs about health and illness present a fascinating topic for the sociology of knowledge. Knowledge of disease etiology, classification, diagnosis, treatment and healing strategies differ radically from one culture to another, but holds unquestionable significance for almost everyone. This knowledge and the activity it informs are taken very seriously, and as such are inevitably revealing of a whole array of values and beliefs about an individual's life and world.

The experience of illness, in fact, is like a bright light which brings these sometimes hidden values into sharp relief.

The discipline of medical sociology, in concerning itself with social activity surrounding illness, has focussed mainly on the scientific medical aspects of that activity, and largely ignored the wealth of everyday, commonsense knowledge, due to some practical and theoretical limitations which will be addressed here. Recent changes in public health consciousness require that medical sociology overcome these limitations, and widen its purview. Both its theoretical and practical, even political aspects are still heavily influenced by the concept of the Parsonian sick role.

A fundamentally new approach to the concepts of health and illness, as they are understood by the medical and sociological laity, is badly needed for future research in the field to remain relevant to social reality. A new theoretical framework for sociological concern with the problem of health and illness is proposed here, one which draws on the work of Alfred Schutz, Mary Douglas, and Peter Manning and Horacio Fabrega. This new sociology of knowledge approach both defines new areas for sociological analysis and clarifies and relativizes much of the good work which has already been done in this field.

* Research for this paper was carried out with the support of the Medicating Structures and Public Policy Project (MO East 64th Street, New York) of the American Enterprise Institute, Washington D.C.

Comparison and critics the definitions of health and illness

Disease and illness are distinctly different entities, as sociologists arc fond of pointing out El]. Disease is an abstract, biological-medical conception of pathological abnormalities in peoples' bodies. Diseases are indicated by certain abnormal signs and symptoms which can be observed, measured, recorded, classified and analyzed according to clinical standards of normality. Such a physiologically-based definition of disease, while obviously useful for biological and medical research, is clearly inadequate for social scientific investigations. Biomedical disease presents no data for sociological analysis; it reveals no social facts.

• Illness, the human experiencing of disease, is an explicitly social phenomenon with both an objective and a subjective reality. A person's experience of ill health includes both behavioral changes and feelings of being sick, each of which are intimately related to the person's social context. Thus it is possible for an individual to have a disease, yet be unaware of it and act accordingly; it is also possible for people to feel and/or act sick without showi~ng evidence of any objectively verifiable disease. In the former instance there is no illness, though ...
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