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Medical sociology is a subdiscipline of sociology that studies the social causes and consequences of health and illness. Major areas of investigation include the social aspects of health and disease, the social behavior of health care workers and the people who utilize their services, the social functions of health organizations and institutions, the social patterns of health services, the relationship of health care delivery systems to other social systems, and health policy. What makes medical sociology important is the significant role social factors play in determining the health of individuals, groups, and the larger society.
In recognition of the broad impact of social factors on health, medical sociology is sometimes referred to as health sociology” or the sociology of health.” Medical sociologists comprise one of the largest groups of sociologists in the world. They have employment opportunities both within and outside of academia. Medical sociologists work not only in university sociology departments, medical, nursing, and public health schools and various other health-related professional schools, but also in research organizations and government agencies.
Medical sociology is a relatively new sociological specialty. It came of age in the late 1940s and early 1950s in an intellectual climate far different from sociology’s traditional specialties. Sociology’s early theorists ignored medicine because it was not an institution shaping society. Medical sociology evolved as a specialty in sociology in response to funding agencies and policymakers after World War II who viewed it as an applied field that could produce knowledge useful for medical practice, public health campaigns, and health policy formulation. Ample funding for research to help solve the health problems of society during the post-World War II era stimulated its growth. A related problem in the early development of medical sociology was its potential to become dependent on medicine for its direction and research orientation. However, this did not happen, as medical sociologists adopted an independent course and made the practice of medicine one of its major subjects of inquiry.
A decisive event took place in medical sociology in 1951 that provided a theoretical direction to a formerly applied field. This was the appearance of Parsons’ The Social System, written to explain a complex structural functionalist model of society that contained Parsons’ concept of the sick role. Parsons had become the best-known sociologist in the world and having a theorist of his stature provide the first major theory in medical sociology called attention to the young subdiscipline. The next major area of research was medical education. Howard Becker and his associates published Boys in White (1961), a study of medical school socialization, conducted from a symbolic interactionist perspective, that became a sociological classic.
With the introduction of symbolic interaction into a field that had previously been dominated by structural functionalism, medical sociology became a significant arena of debate between two of sociology’s major theoretical schools. This debate helped stimulate a virtual flood of publications in medical sociology in the 1960s. For example, Goffman’s Asylums (1961), a study of life in a mental hospital, presented his concept of total institutions” that stands as a significant sociological statement about social life in an externally controlled environment. An abundant literature emerged at this time that established the sociology of mental disorder as a major subfield within medical sociology.
Since1970, medical sociology emerged as a mature sociological subdiscipline. This period was marked by the publication of two especially important books, Eliot Friedson’s Professional Dominance (1970) on the power of the medical profession and Paul Starr’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Social Transformation of American Medicine (1982) on the decline of that power. Another major work was Bryan Turner’s Body and Society (1984), which led to the development of the field of study that became the sociology of the body. The 1990s saw medical sociology move closer to its parent discipline of sociology, while sociology moved closer to medical sociology as the field remains one of the largest and most robust sociological specialties. Ultimately, what allows medical sociology to retain its unique character is (1) its utilization and mastery of sociological theory in the study of health and (2) the sociological perspective that accounts for collective causes and outcomes of health problems and issues. No other field is able to bring these skills to health-related research and analysis. As medical sociology continues on its present course, it is likely to emerge as one of sociology’s core specialties as the pursuit of health increasingly becomes important in everyday social life.
- Bloom, S. (2002) The Word as Scalpel: A History of Medical Sociology. Oxford University Press, New York.
- Cockerham, W. (2007) Social Causes of Health and Disease. Polity Press, Cambridge.
- Cockerham, W. (2010) Medical Sociology, 11th edn. Pearson Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ.