The concept of ‘health’ is one that has interested sociologists for many years and their cultural and social aspects have been the subjects for much contention. I am going to explore the different theories put forward as to the function of these aspects of human behaviour and if they are to societies benefit. Marxist sociologists for example have theorised for years that doctors are merely unnecessary tools of an oppressive capitalist system while the functionalists have retorted stating that doctors and the ‘sick role’ are crucial to the easy running of a society.
In order to explore these arguments it is necessary to define the elements of “health” and “illness” presented within the question. For the purpose of this argument I am going to define “health” in the negative manner outlined by Trowler and favoured by our society, that it is the absence of disease and disability. I am going to use the sociological definition of illness as the subjective experience of being unwell. The ‘sick role’ was outlined by Talcott Parsons who theorised that people who became unwell had certain privileges and obligations to fulfil.
These privileges meant that the unwell person was cared for and the obligations meant that they kept in mind their social responsibility and the need to meet them. This ‘sick role’ puts doctors in the position of gate keepers for society in the organisation and order of their unwell and ill. It is the consensus of the functionalists that doctors should be seen as the pillars of society that have earned their place as an authority figure within a meritocracy. In this view doctors have merely filled a gap within society by providing improved health care and extending life expectancy.
In this view the concepts of health and illness are fixed, they are not ideas but fixed fact that civilised societies acknowledge and take responsibility for. This would, however, be refuted by Ivan Illich who places doctors in the role of power hungry tools for the controlling of society and the continuation of a hierarchy in society. He also suggests that doctors are bad for their patients because of the mechanistic and impersonal way in which they are dealt with.
In the view of Illich doctors retract form personal power as they use jargon and authority to wow people and to limit the amount of faith people have in their own knowledge and ability. He has also done extensive research to show that the extension of life expectancy and the reduction in infectious disease was not due to doctors bit to improves sewer systems, better nutrition and birth control. To him doctors are given far to much status and the concept of health and illness is only relative to which cultural and societal structure you are living under.
This maltreatment of patients by general practitioners is actually leading to the development of a new hierarchy. One in which the less wealthy are forced to visit GPs that they feel neglect them and the affluent get to take advantage of the new availability of alternative treatments. This new trend has been accredited to the emergence of a stronger public personality. It has been theorised that due to the wide availability of information today and demystification of the medical profession people are looking elsewhere for the new and exotic medicines they desire.
It would be argued by The New Right that this is a negative move for society as it is linked to the break down in social order and the erosion of respect for authority figures. It would be argued that peoples growing distrust in contemporary medicine is bad for them as it may lead to disease which may have been treated equally being left until the situation is one of urgency and possibly even fatality. However they also argue that state provided health care is also bad for the individual and the society.
It is their view that while there should be a minimum of health care available the mollycoddling of people means that they have no responsibility for their own health and they constantly drain the funds of the government to fund their hypochondriac tendencies. The view of health and illness here is that there is no need for subjective or culturally relative elements and that if people could take responsibility for themselves and realise that ill is ill no matter where you are standing then things would run a great deal more smoothly.
It has been argued that the mechanisation and masculisation of medicine has led to a reduction in the position of women to be in power over their own bodies. Anne Oakley argues that due to the sterilisation of the process of pregnancy and birth a lot of women are being disempowered within what should actually be the most uplifting and empowering time of their life. This is a point for the argument that health and illness are social constructions. Before when a women was pregnant this was a sign that she was healthy and that everything was in working order. t has now been adapted and taken over by patriarchy so that women are treated both medically and socially as unwell. There is the same stigma as is attached to diseases as is attached to pregnancy and women are also expected to conform to the ‘sick role’. The rules do change but the basis is still the same. The criticisms of looking at health and illness are often reacted to the biomedical model. This does not allow for the variations in people and for the variations in culture. It is a stereotyping socially excluding example.
It also takes the focus away from the area that, as pointed out by Ivan Illich, is essential to the advancement of the health of the human race. This is the area of preventative methods. The emphasis on curative means that people do not think about their health until something goes wrong. If the government was to focus it’s efforts on a preventative campaign then we could see considerable extension of life quality and life expectancy. From assessing the different perspectives and arguments that I have presented it seems to me that health and illness are subjective and culturally relative.
They are social constructions that change over time, as demonstrated by the social paradigm theory, they change as people change and can never be pinned down. The paradigm theory however is not clear cut because residues of the different eras linger into each other. What sociology has done is help understand the changing nature of theses human behavioural aspects. By studying how people react to health and illness and looking closely at the social definitions and usage of these terms sociology theorists have presented us with the knowledge that everything within those aspects is relative, nothing is certain.