The social construction of illness is a major research perspective in medical sociology. This article traces the roots of this perspective and presents three overarching constructionist findings. First, some illnesses are particularly embedded with cultural meaning—which is not directly derived from the nature of the condition—that shapes how society responds to those afflicted and influences the experience of that illness. Second, all illnesses are socially constructed at the experiential level, based on how individuals come to understand and live with their illness. Third, medical knowledge about illness and disease is not necessarily given by nature but is constructed and developed by claims-makers and interested parties. We address central policy implications of each of these findings and discuss fruitful directions for policy-relevant research in a social constructionist tradition. Social constructionism provides an important counterpoint to medicine’s largely deterministic approaches to disease and illness, and it can help us broaden policy deliberations and decisions.
Health as a Social Construction
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Health as a Social Construction
In my essay, I aim to find out why social construction affects the
health of our society. Ill health may be defined as 'a bodily or
mental state that is deemed undesirable'. This means that health is
the condition of the body both physically and mentally.
Social construction of health refers to the way health varies from one
society to another. Social construction refers to the statistics like
the morbidity and mortality rate of our society. Our gender, class,
ethnicity, religion and even education construct society, these all
determine our experience of reality.
An example of how sociologists have tried to deconstruct health in
society is looking at the theories of sociologists like Leslie (1980).
She developed the '3 Fold model of Health'. She researched and
developed her concept by looking at health in different
countries/cultures. The first model, 'Mechanistic Model', is a concept
identifying the body as a machine and was applied to the Western
The 'Bio Medical Model' is also linked with the mechanistic model,
where illness is seen as a nuisance and causes the 'machine' to break
down and even stop working completely. Through Helman's study we can
see that although we know how we catch a cold i.e. germs, lay
perceptions still exist despite the Bio Medical model. Helman's study
demonstrates that variations of health still exist within our society.
Two types of illnesses related to this are chronic illness
(lasting/terminal) and acute illness (minor e.g. the flu). Criticism
of the mechanistic model is that it is slightly simplistic and may not
always apply because the body cannot always be repaired.
The second model is the 'Naturalistic Model', which refers to the
notion of equilibrium. In order for the body to remain healthy, there
must be a balance. Chinese medicine relies greatly on this notion i.e.
Yin (cold) and Yang (hot). This notion is often used in alternative
The third model is the 'Ethical Model' which states that illness is
sent by a divine force, like a punishment for the persons wrong doings
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Social Construction Chinese Medicine Chronic Bodily Sociologists Germs Illnesses Always Notion
e.g. AIDS, Epilepsy, Homosexuality and so on.
By looking at Leslie's 3 Fold Model theory, it can be said that health
is a social construction because not all figures reflect the actual
illness in the society. It can be seen, by looking at the Naturalistic
Model, that not all statistics are accounted for when trying to find
the morbidity rate. Some people may follow the Naturalistic Model, and
therefore may not go to the doctor to find out what is wrong with
them. Figures such as these are not mentioned in statistics and hence,
favour the Mechanistic Model.
Berger and Luckman (1966) favoured an interpretive perspective when
looking at the social construction of illness. Their book, The Social
Construction of Reality' analyses the idea of mortality varying
because of social class rather than trying to explain it on biological
W.H.O (World Health Organisation, 1984) proposed a different concept
of health. They proposed that health is a resource for everyday life
but is not however the objective of living. 'â€¦It is a positive concept
emphasising social and personal resources as well as physical
Health may vary from society to society due to the political and
social state of a particular country. Foucault used this as a basis
for his theory. He proposed the idea that health is merely economic
and political, and not social. An example of this could be mental
health. Some people may be seen as mentally ill if they did not
believe in the politics of a particular country. This meant that they
were jailed and put into isolation even though they were not mentally
ill, but were overpowered by an elite force. His theory is still
useful today, and questions the official statistics because this idea
is not accounted for.
Evans and Pritchard (1980) were anthropologists who studied a small
society called the Azande. Within the Azande society when a person is
ill, they visit the Sheman (witch doctor). Illness is seen as the
consequence of an evil spirit. The Sheman looks at the chicken
entrails (guts) to determine who cast this spell on the person.
Accusations are made and the spell is lifted and the person becomes
better. This study shows how a particular culture may affect the state
of a person's health and also how it is treated.
Blaxter and Patterson (1982) studied class and health within society.
Women in the study reported themselves as ill only when they could no
longer perform their daily tasks despite discomfort and disability
many reported their health as satisfactory e.g. one woman was
interviewed and was found to have been sterilised, taking Valium and
on disability benefits, but yet she still described her health as
satisfactory. This study brings to light how the individual actually
defines illness because this can affect the outcome of particular
statistics and measure their validity.
When looking at statistics I noticed that illness is only regarded
important on a larger scale. Sharma conducted a small-scale study on
people who used small-scale medicine. They interviewed people who used
alternative medicine within a 12-month period and who lived in Stoke
On Trent. People who use alternative medicine are not covered because
figures are only shown of people who go to the doctor are registered.
[IMAGE]In conclusion I would say that is definite that illness is
socially constructed. This is because different societies regard
health differently, alternative medicines are not accounted for in
official figures, and the social and economic state of that particular
society may affect the way illness is dealt with. Many sociologists
have identified how illness varies from each society, favouring the
idea of social construction. There are still faults with the social
constructionist theory i.e. social constructionist's make a judgement
about health, denying the input of science, where as figures are
factual and have strong evidence in order to support their outcome.
Â§ Sociology, biology and healthâ€¦by Yanina Sheeran
Â§ Class notes
Â§ World Book Dictionary