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Sociology of Health: an introduction

Over the last decade the promotion of health has become a central feature of health policy at local, national and international levels, forming part of global health initiatives such as those endorsed by the World Health Organization.

Sociology of Health: an introduction


Over the last decade the promotion of health has become a central feature of health policy at local, national and international levels, forming part of global health initiatives such as those endorsed by the World Health Organization. At the same time a concern with ‘healthy living’ has become a preoccupation for many people. The Sociology of Health Promotion responds by offering the first critical sociological account of these developments and locates them within a set of wider sociocultural changes associated with late modernism. The Sociology of Health offers analyses of contemporary public health policy, lifestyle, consumption, risk and health. It also examines sociopolitical critiques of health promotion and reflects upon their implications for policy and practice, the impact of both morbidity on social life and social life on morbidity. Diseases and conditions once attributed mainly to genetic predispositions are increasingly being looked at under a more global microscope with factors such as family, education, religion and economic standing all playing key roles in understanding the issue at hand. The history of HIV/Aids illustrates a prime example of how sociological factors affect health. The disease is thought to have originated in SubSaharan Africa, where 69% of the world’s HIV/Aids cases currently exist, making heritage an important component to consider. However, there are even more sociological circumstances that contribute to the plethora of HIV/Aids victims in this area of the world. Female genital mutilation, an unfortunate cultural norm in parts of Africa, is conducive to the exchange of blood during sexual intercourse. Additionally, interference by religious activists often prevents any hope for promoting safesex campaigns. Even major political figures in Africa have been known to cling strongly to AIDSdenialist claims. This ignorant standpoint places a society that is already intensely prone to contracting the disease in an even more uneducated position.


The positive side to discovering the influence of sociological factors on disease is that it provides us with further insight to humanity’s core issues and obstacles. When not adequately paid attention to, however, knowledge can be a doubleedged sword. For instance, when HIV/Aids first emerged in the US in the 1980s, it was feared but also believed to solely infect the homosexual and/or African American communities. Though these groups do often dominate statistics, HIV/Aids have actually been on the rise significantly in heterosexual females as of late. So, though the stigma and fear of HIV/Aids still exists in the US, the invention of new medicines and the spotlight on stereotypical victims sometimes make it not as prominent a concern as it should be for others who could still be infected. As we progress as a society, it is vital that we fully acknowledge potential health risks and make a joint effort to share and spread preventative knowledge.


Health is a state of complete wellbeing: physical, mental, and emotional. This definition emphasizes the importance of being more than disease free, and recognizes that a healthy body depends upon a healthy environment and a stable mind. Medicine is the social institution that diagnoses, treats, and prevents disease. To accomplish these tasks, medicine depends upon most other sciences—including life and earth sciences, chemistry, physics, and engineering. Preventive medicine is a more recent approach to medicine, which emphasizes health habits that prevent disease, including eating a healthier diet, getting adequate exercise etc.


The sociology of health and illness studies the interaction between society and health. In particular, sociologists examine how social life impacts morbidity and mortality rates and how morbidity and mortality rates impact society. This discipline also looks at health and illness in relation to social institutions such as the family, work, school, and religion as well as the causes of disease and illness, reasons for seeking particular types of care, and patient compliance and noncompliance. Health, or lack of health, was once merely attributed to biological or natural conditions. Sociologists have demonstrated that the spread of diseases is heavily influenced by the socioeconomic status of individuals, ethnic traditions or beliefs, and other cultural factors. Where medical research might gather statistics on a disease, a sociological perspective of an illness would provide insight on what external factors caused the demographics that contracted the disease to become ill.


The sociology of health and illness requires a global approach of analysis because the influence of societal factors varies throughout the world. Diseases are examined and compared based on the traditional medicine, economics, religion, and culture that are specific to each region. For example, HIV/AIDS serves as a common basis of comparison among regions. While it is extremely problematic in certain areas, in others it has affected a relatively small percentage of the population. Sociological factors can help to explain why these discrepancies exist.


Moreover, there are obvious differences in patterns of health and illness across societies, over time, and within particular society types. There has historically been a longterm decline in mortality within industrialized societies, and on average, lifeexpectancies are considerably higher in developed, rather than developing or undeveloped, societies. Patterns of global change in health care systems make it more imperative than ever to research and comprehend the sociology of health and illness. Continuous changes in economy, therapy, technology and insurance can affect the way individual communities view and respond to the medical care available. These rapid fluctuations cause the issue of health and illness within social life to be very dynamic in definition. Advancing information is vital because as patterns evolve, the study of the sociology of health and illness constantly needs to be updated.


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