Theoretical Perspectives on Health & Medicine

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Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

What does it mean to be sick? Medically, it means to be unhealthy, but sickness also has specific meaning within society. In this lesson we're going to look at the social roles of health and sickness through four different sociological frameworks.

Health And Society

Imagine that you are going to take a sick day. What does that mean? Probably chicken noodle soup, snuggling up under a blanket, maybe a cup of hot tea, and your favorite movie. Why do I know this? Because, that is the American social expectation about what it means to be sick. Sickness is not something that just happens to us as individuals, and all societies have their own definitions of health, wellness, and sickness. This is actually an entire field of study. We often think of health simply in medical terms, but to sociologists, health is not just the absence of disease, but a state of combined physical, mental, and social well-being. So how do sociologists study the role of health within a society? Maybe, they just need to take a sick day.

The Structural-Functional Analysis

So, sociologists look at health and illness as they relate to society. In the sociological framework of structural functionalism, society is treated as a complex whole made of individual parts that work together. Just like the body is composed of a heart and brain and lungs and cells and so on, societies are composed of customs, traditions, expectations, interactions, etc. This means that everybody in society has a specific role.

In a book published in 1951, Harvard sociologist Talcott Parsons applied this framework to the study of health. He argues that within society there is a sick role that is made up of the social rights and expectations of people affected with a disease, and this role is a form of sanctioned deviance, or an accepted breaking from normal behavior. We expect healthy people to be productive members of society, but the sick are allowed to deviate: to be cranky, isolated, and unproductive. Now, like any deviance, these behaviors must be monitored and policed, and that's where healthcare professionals come in. According to Parsons, the role of physicians is not just to treat disease but to rehabilitate these sanctioned deviants and get them back into their normal roles.

The Symbolic-Interaction Analysis

If we treat health and illness as more than simple medical conditions but as parts of a social system, they become very complex, and this means there are multiple ways to analyze them. Another framework is the symbolic-interaction analysis, which examines how people create meaning during social interactions. In terms of medicine, this is the study of the causes and meanings people create to define illness. The basic idea here is that things only have meaning based on how people interact with them, and these meanings are refined through social interactions. So, sickness and health can only be understood in terms of how people within a society talk about and deal with these ideas.

One of the major focuses of researchers in this framework is the medicalization of deviance, or the social process of redefining a bad behavior as a sick behavior. Let me show you an example. For a long time, alcoholism was thought to indicate that someone was a bad person, that they were deviant, lazy, immoral, or mean. However, in the 20th century this set of behaviors was redefined, and now we treat alcoholism as a disease. An alcoholic is not a bad person, they are just sick and can be treated and cured like any other patient. Through our daily interactions, we redefined an aspect of society in medical terms.

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