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Chapter: Sociology of Health : Sociology of Health

The social basis of health, illness and medicine

1. Bio‐chemical model versus Holistic approach 2. The relationship between society and individual 3. Class and health inequalities 4. Ethnicity, race and health 5. Gender and health

The social basis of health, illness and medicine 


1. Bio‐chemical model versus Holistic approach


Health and illness are, surely, simply biological descriptions of the state of our bodies. When we’re ill, we’re ill. A more refined version of this commonsense view underlies the longstanding biomedical model of disease, which is based on the following assumptions:


·              Disease is an organic condition: nonorganic factors associated with the human mind are considered unimportant or are ignored altogether in the search for biological causes of pathological symptoms.


·              Disease is a temporary organic state that can be eradicated – cured – by medical intervention. Disease is experienced by a sick individual, who then becomes the object of treatment.


·             Disease is treated after the symptoms appear – the application of medicine is a reactive healing process.


·              Disease is treated in a medical environment – a surgery or a hospital – away from the site where the symptoms first appeared.


This model has dominated medical practice because it has been seen to work. It is based on a technically powerful science that has made a massive contribution to key areas of health (for example, vaccination). The anatomical and neurophysiologic structures of the body have been mapped out, and the genetic mapping of the body is being undertaken through the Human Genome Project. The search for the fundamental – that is, genetic – basis of human pathology is on, whether the target is cancer, AIDS or Alzheimer’s disease. This ever closer and more sophisticated inspection of the body –or as Foucault (1977a) would say, the medical gaze – has brought considerable power and prestige to the medical profession. It has also established a large and profitable market for major pharmaceutical companies. The biomedical model also underlies the official definition of health and disease adopted by state and international authorities. National governments and international agencies such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) proclaim their longterm health goal to be the eradication of disease. Sometimes they have been successful, as in the global elimination of smallpox. The rational application of medical science is therefore a hallmark of modernity, inasmuch as it has depended on the development over the past two centuries of a powerful, experimentally based medical analysis of the structure and function of the body and the agents that attack or weaken it. During the course of this, scientific medicine has effectively displaced folk or lay medicine. Modernity is about expertise, not tradition; about critical inspection, not folk beliefs; about control through scientific and technical regulation of the body, not customs and mistaken notions of healing.


Yet the power and status of the medical profession and the health industry in general should not deflect us from asking about the social basis of health and illness. In fact, the position of medical professionals is itself a result of the socially institutionalized power to define the experience of being ‘ill’ and decide what treatment is required. More reflective doctors will acknowledge that their definitions of health and illness are not always shared by their patients and therefore have to be promoted through education, socialization and expensive advertising. Symptoms that, according to the biomedical model, should force us to go to the doctor or take a pill are not necessarily seen as signs of illness by people themselves. Among a household of smokers, for example, the morning ‘smoker’s cough’ is unlikely to be seen as abnormal or a sign of illhealth: indeed, it is often calmed by a good pull on the first cigarette of the day. Among many Westerners, a suntan suggests health and good looks rather than leading to wrinkled skin or skin cancer. Among the Madi of Uganda, illness is often associated with failure to deal properly with interpersonal relations, so that social or moral – rather than biomedical – repair is needed (Allen, 1992).


Thus an alternative or complementary remedy for illhealth often takes a holistic approach to understanding the cause of illness and its remedy.


Sociologists, anthropologists and historians have described the social basis of health and illness in a wide range of studies, including ethnographies of specific communities. They have explored issues of health care, performance of ‘the sick role’, the construction of mental illness as a disease, the wider creation of medical belief systems and the relationship between these and the exercise of power and social control.


The sociology of health and illness is concerned with the social origins of and influences on disease, rather than with exploring its organic manifestation in individual bodies. The sociology ofmedicine is concerned with exploring the social, historical and cultural reasons for the rise to dominance of medicine – especially the biomedical model – in the definition and treatment of illness. These fields are closely related, since the way in which professional (or orthodox) medicine defines and manages illness reflects wider social dynamics that shape the perception and experience of disease.


2.  The relationship between society and individual:

The relationship between individuals and the society or structure in which they live is specific and distinct. A helpful example of the way on which structure (society) influences the actions and experiences of individuals is provided by Giddens. He uses the analogy of language to illustrate the relationship that individual have with the wider social structure. None of us has invented the language that we use but without it the social activity would be impossible because it is our shared meanings that sustain society. However, as Giddens (1994) also points out, each of us is capable of using that language in a creative, distinct and individual way, and yet no one person creates language. In the same way human behavior is not determined in a mechanical way by the structure we call society. The relationship and interplay between society and individual is explained in terms of Structure and agency. The latter is a concept used to refer to a cluster of ideas about the potential for individuals to determine their lives, to change their environment and ultimately influence the wider structure. The concept of agency therefore, allows us to appreciate the way in which we are shaped by society and in turn shape society.


If the subjectmatter of sociology is human society and behavior is explained primarily in terms of ‘structure’, than this logically denotes specific factors in the explanatory framework of the discipline. Sociological explanations of what determines our state of health will necessarily differ from, for example, biological explanations. Clearly disease is a biological and physical entity experienced through the medium of the body. The cause of the disease, while biological, can also be considered in terms of social and structural factors. The immediate cause of disease may be infection but the factors that lead to this may be many and varied. This we may call as the social determinates of health. The social determinants of health are the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age. These circumstances are shaped by the distribution of money, power and resources at global, national and local levels. The social determinants of health are mostly responsible for health inequities the unfair and avoidable differences in health status seen within and between countries. Some of these social and environmental factors such as age, social class, ethnicity, race and gender fall within the scope of health sociology.



3. Class and health inequalities:


Class refers to a complex stratification of society based on access to and control of power, status and economic resources. It is a complex and dynamic power relationship between people. Class societies are also distinct from other societies that are also stratified. For example in feudal society distinction between people was rigid, immobile and seen to be religiously ordained. The reason why someone was a lord or a peasant was because God willed it that way and there was no way to change it. But in contemporary societies one can be more socially mobile between classes. This is because, in many ways one achieves one’s own class position and it is not fixed by his birth.


There is a great deal of difference between people’s life expectancy depending on the class to which they belong. If someone is from manual or working class background, generally speaking, likely die younger, age faster and encounter more longterm limiting illnesses than someone from a non manual or middle class, background. This lamentable state of affairs has been apparent in much of the research looking at class and health for some time now. Going back to the mid1800s, Marx’scollaborator Engels wrote about the poor health of the working class in Manchester. He claimed that the levels of disease, illness and death were a form of ‘social murder’ committed by bourgeoisie. More recently, landmark reports such as the Black Report published in 1980 and the Acheson Report published in 1998 both strongly indicated that which class you are in affects your health. However there are two perspectives such as Psycho-social perspective and Neo-material perspectivethat attempt to explain the existence of class and health inequalities. Both ofthe approaches are provided by Lynch et al. (2000).


Psychosocial perspective


Psychosocial perspective refers to explanation of class and health inequality that emphasize the negative emotional experiences of living in an unequal society, particularly feeling of stress and powerlessness. Wilkinson’s (1996) work in the 1980s and 1990s demonstrated that in influent societies it is relative, not average, income that affects health. Wilkinson argues that the greater the inequality in a given society, the less social cohesion it has and therefore, the more insecurity and isolation experienced by the most disadvantaged groups in that society. This insecurity and isolation result in greater levels of chronic stress. In turn, this chronic stress moves down biological pathways (particularly the nervous system) in the human body causing all sorts of harm.


Neomaterial perspective


Neomaterial perspectives refer to explanations of class and health inequality that emphasis unequal distribution of resources such as housing, income and access to education.


Thus, there are consistent and persistent differences in class and health in contemporary society. Such differences are part of the array of inequalities to do with wealth, income and other recourses. Perhaps it is in health that the social division of class is most evidently visible, with the bodies people affected and changed by their location in society. As discussed earlier the bodies of workingclass people are more likely to age quicker, be more susceptible to illness and be much more likely to encounter limiting longterm conditions than those located higher in society.


4. Ethnicity, race and health


Race refers to biological differences between people based on skin colour and other physical features, though the actual differences between them genetically are extremely small. Ethnicity refers to the cultural heritage and identity of a group of people where a common cultural heritage is socially learned and constructed. Race is supposed to be based on biological or genetic traits where ethnicity is purely social phenomena. Racism refers to the supposed racial superiority of one group over another.


There has been much research on ethnicity and health over the years. What much of the research indicates is that there is a burden of illhealth among ethnic minority groups in the UK. Many people from ethnic minority groups report poor health and longterm limiting illness. This is even more notable as ethnic minority groups tend to have a younger age profile than the white majority population. Researchers in the past often favored explanations that drew attention to either genetic or cultural reasons for ill health. The implication was that there was something wrong with the biology of ethnic groups, which predisposed them to certain types of illhealth or that the culture of the ethnic group was to blame. An indicative example of this older approach can be noted in research on ‘South Asians’ and coronary heart disease (CHD) (Nazroo1998). Work by Gupta et.al. (1995) inferred that it was something to do with either the genetic makeup of ‘South Asians’ that predisposed them to CHD, something in cultural practices such as cooking with ghee, nor exercising or not making the best use of medical services. In the past few years, however the work of other researchers, such as Ahmad (2000), Nazroo (2006) and Smaje(1996), have put forward a more challenging and sophisticated explanation of the complex way in which ethnicity , society and health interact. As Higginbottom (2006:585) usefully summarizes, variations in ethnicity and health and illhealth, ‘arise from the coalescence of complex factors such as migration, cultural adaptation, racism, reception by host community, socioeconomic influences, and prevailing societal ideologies’. Reviewing a range of research and reports, Chahal(2004) concluded that medical and health care services can be problematic for Black and ethnic minority people, with negative experiences of medical and health services being a common problem. This is particularly evident with mental health services. Black people are over represented in mental illness statistics, more likely to be placed in secure wards and to receive different if not poorer –treatment and care than Whites. Thus, class and socioeconomic differences affect the health of ethnic minority groups. Even within the same ethnic minority group there are differences in health, with those from the nonmanual occupation class having better health than those in manual occupation classes. Moreover psychosocial effects of racism can have a strong impact on the health of ethnic minority groups.



5.  Gender and health


Gender refers to social, cultural and psychological differences between men and women. It is the socially constructed differences in roles and responsibilities assigned to men and women in a given culture or location and the social structure that supports them. Gender roles and expectations are learnt. They can change over time and they vary within and between cultures.


The study of gender and health has recently undergone a period of change and transition. How being a woman or a man affects one’s health are currently being developed and developed in a new and interesting way. However we cannot ignore the traditional perspective of discussing gender and health which could be easily summarized as’ men die and women suffer’, means when it comes to health differences between men and women, men experience higher levels of early mortality, while women live longer but experience higher levels of morbidity during their lives. The reasons for these differences were often explained by reference to paid and domestic work roles as well as the wider and often stereotypical, social roles, which men and women held.


Though traditional perspectives on gender and health produced a great deal of vital and interesting research, recently certain sociologist, such as Kandracket al. (1991), Annandale and Hunt (2000) and Macintyre et al. (1999), have focused on a new understanding of health and gender. Much of this contemporary thinking of relation between health and gender has been prompted by two influences.



·              Firstly, the society is becoming more complex regarding gender relations. Many of the old assumption about gender for instance the man as breadwinner, going out to earn the family wage and the woman staying at home tending to domestic chores simply no longer fit today’s society. There have been many other transformations, shifts and movements in how women and men relate to the home, to work and to each other. In the midst of all this change women’s and men’s health is affected in new ways.


·              Secondly, there is growing questioning of the theories used to conceptualize gender. So adequate understanding of how issues relating to gender affect both sexes is needed. So emphasis is now lies on understanding the lived experiences of both women and men and acknowledging that differences exist within each sex.


Annandale and Hunt (2000) have recently pointed out that research in the study of gender and health is at a crossroads with ‘traditional’ approaches giving way to ‘new’ approaches. The traditional approaches as mentioned earlier view that men and women are located in very distinct and different social roles (man in fulltime paid work and women in the home). Theses social roles required them to act in certain ways, which were, generally speaking, good for men but bad for women. The new approach hold that social roles may be ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ in orientation (such as running a business or looking after children) but a man may carry out a feminine role (looking after children), while a woman may occupy a masculine role as ( running a business). The new approaches also focus on how men and women experience those roles and how those experiences affect their health (Annandale and Hunt 2000). The more ‘feminine’ a role, the lower status it tends to have and this can lead to poor health. Performing feminine roles also carries much more pressure than performing male roles.


Annandale and Hunt (2000: 279) usefully summarize the differences between ‘traditional’ and ‘new’ approaches to gender and health:


·              ‘Traditional’ forms of research had the tacit assumption that what was good for men was bad for women when it comes to health. ‘New’ research follows a more nuanced and subtle approach, and understands that similar circumstances may have similar or different consequences for the health of men and women.


·              ‘New’ approaches are aware of the differences within men and within women. In traditional research men in particular, were treated as an undifferentiated group, where all men had similar health experiences.


·              In traditional research positivist, quantitative, statistical methods were predominant. In new research the role of qualitative method is highlighted in trying to obtain an understanding of how the experiences of men and women shape their health.


Gender and morbidity


One longheld view is that women have higher morbidity rate than men. There have been a number of reasons behind this, for example:


·              Women do experience more illhealth than men because of the demands of their social roles.


·              Women are more disposed to seek help than men.


·              Women are more intune with their bodies.


·              Surgeries are not male friendly and put men off seeking help.


·              It is easier for women to adopt the seek role.


·              Women’s more attachment to their relation result different kind of mental diseases including stress.


Gender and mortality


Another longstanding perception, when looking gender and health, is that women have some form of biological advantage in terms of life expectancy. In the UK, for instance a woman born in 2004 can expect to live until she is 81.1 years old, while a male born in the same year can expect to reach the age of 76.7 years (ONS 2006). Such statistics strongly suggest that women do enjoy some form of biological advantage over men. However the sizable life expectancy advantage that women experience in the UK is very much a western phenomenon. Figure depicts how overall women do have longer lives than men in most countries but this is extremely variable. On one hand, in some countries, such as Malawi, the life expectancy for both men and women is very low, while in Algeria there is a negligible difference in life expectancy for women and men. The reasons for this are multiple and diverse. For example it depends on levels of health care a country can offer, where child birth is safer, the levels of poverty and endemic illness, such as in Malawi, which faces widespread poverty and has many people infected with HIV/AIDS.


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