Medical sociology

From WikiMD's Health & Wellness Encyclopedia

Medical sociology is the sociological analysis of medical organizations and institutions; the production of knowledge and selection of methods, the actions and interactions of healthcare professionals, and the social or cultural (rather than clinical or bodily) effects of medical practice. The field commonly interacts with the sociology of knowledge, science and technology studies, and social epistemology. Medical sociologists are also interested in the qualitative experiences of patients, often working at the boundaries of public health, social work, demography and gerontology to explore phenomena at the intersection of the social and clinical sciences. Health disparities commonly relate to typical categories such as class and race. Objective sociological research findings quickly become a normative and political issue.

Early work in medical sociology was conducted by Lawrence J Henderson whose theoretical interests in the work of Vilfredo Pareto inspired Talcott Parsons interests in sociological systems theory. Parsons is one of the founding fathers of medical sociology, and applied social role theory to interactional relations between sick people and others. Key contributors to medical sociology since the 1950s include Howard S. Becker, Mike Bury, Peter Conrad, Jack Douglas, David Silverman, Phil Strong, Bernice Pescosolido, Carl May, Anne Rogers, Anselm Strauss, Renee Fox, and Joseph W. Schneider.

The field of medical sociology is usually taught as part of a wider sociology, clinical psychology or health studies degree course, or on dedicated Master's degree courses where it is sometimes combined with the study of medical ethics/bioethics. In Britain, sociology was introduced into the medical curriculum following the Goodenough report in 1944: "In medicine, ‘social explanations’ of the aetiology of disease meant for some doctors a redirection of medical thought from the purely clinical and psychological criteria of illness. The introduction of ‘social’ factors into medical explanation was most strongly evidenced in branches of medicine closely related to the community — Social Medicine and, later, General Practice" (Reid 1976).


• Medical sociology can trace its intellectual lineage to the late 1800s. • Nineteenth century, two nascent disciplines, sociology and allopathic medicine, began to cross paths in small but significant ways. • For allopathic medicine, this time period witnessed the beginnings of medicine’s ongoing attempts to consolidate its professional powers and social legitimacy. • Meanwhile, sociology (the term being first coined by Auguste Comte in 1838) was beginning to emerge as a distinct discipline. • In the United States, for example, Herbert Spencer’s The Principles of Sociology (three volumes, 1876–1896) • Establishment of the first American sociology course (“Elements of Sociology” at the University of Kansas, Lawrence, in 1890), • Founding of the first department of sociology (at the University of Chicago in 1892 by Albion Small • Albion Small—who three years later also would launch the first sociology journal, American Journal of Sociology [AJS], in 1895). • from this time period that formally link “medicine” and “sociology” include two articles by Charles McIntire (1915, 1991) (“The Importance of the Study of Medical Sociology”—first published in 1894 and reprinted in Sociological Practice—and “The Expanse of Sociologic Medicine”) • along with two key books, the first by Elizabeth Blackwell (1902) (Essays in Medical Sociology) and the • second by James P. Warbasse (1909) (Medical Sociology: A Series of Observations Touching Upon the Sociology of Health and the Relations of Medicine). • The second McIntire article is of particular interest because of where it appeared—in the Journal of Sociologic Medicine, which was published not by a sociology association but by the American Academy of Medicine. • This journal, with its distinctive sociological title and medical “residence,” existed for four years (1915–1919) before both the parent and the journal disappeared from view. • The American Public Health Association hosted a similar sociologic offspring—it’s “Section of Sociology”—for a slightly longer period of time (1909–1921), but with a similar demise (Bloom 2002). • It took another quarter century before the next medical sociology journal (Journal of Health and Human Behavior) appear. • The initial timing and brief duration of these links between medicine and sociology reflected a much broader transformation taking place within allopathic medicine and between medicine and society, as both rushed to affirm the “scientific side” of medicine. • As medicine grew in clinical effectiveness and organizational complexity, however, the social-psychological and behavioral sides of medicine began to atrophy—with instruction, research, and principles relegated to “second order” of medical fields such as psychiatry and public health. • While scattered “sociology of medicine” articles would continue to appear infrequently in medical journals between 1920 and 1950 • Lawrence J. Henderson’s [1935] “Physician and patient as a social system” being a notable example) • The few that did surface would have a far greater impact on sociology than on medicine (one famous “benefactor” of the Henderson article, for example, was Talcott Parsons). • In 1960, Austin Porterfield published what would become the first substantive disciplinary journal in medical sociology, the Journal of Health & Human Behavior (JHHB).[1] [2] • In the spring of 1967, the American Sociological Association (ASA) took JHHB under its organizational wing where it was renamed the Journal of Health and Social Behavior (JHSB). Eliot Freidson was the first editor. • This same year also marked the first issue of Social Science & Medicine (SS&M), with its distinctively international and multidisciplinary social science focus. • By the early 1970s, the medical sociology section of the British Sociological Association had established its own organizational footprint, and in 1979 published its own “medical sociology” journal (Sociology of Health & Illness). • During the 1950s and 1960s, the field of medical sociology underwent an explosive period of growth—before peaking in the early 1970s. • During these two decades, the field enjoyed considerable academic excitement and success, including what today might be considered a lavish amount of grant support, both from private foundations and the federal government. At its peak in the early 1970s, for example, the National Institute of Mental Health subcommittee for social science training was awarding 1,500 graduate student stipends per year—80 percent of which went to sociology departments. • The number of stipends was well in excess of what was needed to support medical sociology graduate students— and thus the entire field of sociology benefited from this philanthropic and federal largess. • Even the founding of the medical sociology section itself and the ASA’s decision to adopt the JHSB were underwritten by outside funding. • Membership in the new ASA section (established in 1959) was mercurial. In less than a year, the medical sociology section grew to 561 members. • By 1964, membership had soared to nearly 900 (which, not incidentally, is close to the section’s membership today). In less than a half dozen years, the field went from publishing introductions to the field to summative reviews (one notable example is Eliot Freidson’s[1961] “The Sociology of Medicine: A Trend Report and Bibliography,” published as a special issue in Current Sociology). • By the mid-1970s, however, there were signs of trouble. • Established funding streams had dried up and were not replaced by alternative resources. • Section membership had plateaued and coverage of medical/health issues in flagship sociology journals, such as the AJS and the American Sociological Review, became more infrequent. • Meanwhile, colleges and universities were undergoing their own upheavals. Faced with considerable financial pressures, schools looked to trim programs, and sociology was high on a number of lists. • As one small but indicative example, Yale University’s Department of Sociology, which housed the first medical sociology program in the United States, decided in the 1990s to eliminate that program. • The 1980s and 1990s were a difficult time for allopathic medicine as well. • The rise of managed care, the commodification of medical services, and the discovery of medicine by Wall Street and corporate America during 1985 and 1997 • earth-shattering implications for the future of medicine as an autonomous profession. • The 1970s through early 1990s also were a time of vigorous debates within academic sociology about the fate and future of allopathic medicine as a profession (Hafferty and Light 1995; Hafferty and Wolinsky 1991). Beginning with Eliot Freidson’s (1970a, 1970b) transformative Profession of Medicine and Professional Dominance, a number of distinguished medical sociologists in the United States (Mark Field, David Frankford, Marie Haug, Eliot Krause, Donald Light, John McKinlay, Fredric Wolinsky) and elsewhere (David Coburn, Julio Frenk, Rudolf Klein, Magali Larson, Gerald Larkin, ElianneRiska, Evan Willis) began to debate the changing fortunes of organized medicine’s status as a profession (Hafferty and McKinlay 1993). • Once again medicine and sociology crossed paths. It is worth noting, however, that by the time organized medicine began to mount a campaign to reestablish its professional status and stature, sociologists had moved on to other debates (Castellani and Hafferty 2006). • Issues of Identity and Identification From its very conception as an academic entity, medical sociology has been plagued by issues of identity (self) and of identification (others). • On the one hand, the study of medical and health issues offered sociology great challenges and opportunities. • On the other hand, these same opportunities had the potential to strip sociology of its unique perspective. • One hallmark of this tension is the now 50-year-old debate about whether the ASA’s section should be named “medical sociology” or whether it should sport some other marquee such as “health sociology” or the “sociology of health and illness.” • Many of these tensions are reflected in Robert Straus’s (1957) famous distinction between sociology of and sociology in medicine. • The problem is one of placement and perspective. • The former (of) reflects situations where sociologists maintain their disciplinary base (an academic sociology department for example) and train their sociological lens on fields of inquiry (such as medicine) for the purpose of answering sociological questions. The latter (in) connotes a state of affairs where sociologists work, for example, in a medical setting and employ sociological concepts and perspectives to solve problems that are defined as such by medicine. • Sociology of medicine thus became considered (by academically based sociologists) as more in keeping with the sociological tradition, with the presumption being that those operating from a sociology in medicine ran the risk of being co-opted or at least corrupted by the medical perspective. • More recently, there have been efforts to “retire” this distinction by insisting that sociology has passed through its of/in phase and has graduated into a sociology with medicine (Levine 1987). • Organized medicine remains one of the most powerful social institutions in modern times—forces of deprofessionalization not withstanding. Furthermore, medicine has little incentive (then or now) to welcome sociology to its table unless it feels that sociology can help solve issues or problems—as defined by medicine (and not sociology). • Under such circumstances (and expectations), any working relationship between sociology and medicine involves considerable potential for sociology to undergo disciplinary co-option. • Sociologists who work in medical settings must be particularly sensitive to these issues. • Often they function betwixt and between, receiving little respect from physicians or from their academically based peers who consider their “wayward” colleges to be too “applied.” Whatever the particulars, organized medicine retains considerable institutional power and social legitimacy within today’s society. • Medicine has been able to establish its knowledge, skills, and culture as the everyday, taken-for-granted order of things and this is what makes the medical perspective so potentially corrupting. • Medical Sociology and Medical Education' • The move to introduce medical sociology into the medical school and nursing curriculum played an important role in the discipline’s evolution as an institutional entity. The first beachhead came in 1959, when Robert Straus founded the first Department of Behavioral Science at the University of Kentucky. • Straus also helped to found, in 1970, the discipline’s first professional association (Association for the Behavioral Sciences and Medical Education). • For Straus, “behavioral science” (note the singular form) reflected the intersection of medical sociology, medical anthropology, and medical psychology—and therefore represented a unique and transcending social science discipline. • The field quickly established a presence within a number (but not all) of medical schools during the 1960s and 1970s, particularly in those 40+ community medical schools that were being founded during the 1970s and 1980s.


We see two emergent lines of sociological investigation as we move to examine the future of medical sociology— each related to the other. The first is globalization. It is clear that the world in which we live is going through major transformation. This is particularly true of health and health care. We now live in a world where the spread of disease is global and where the poor health of one country affects the Medical Sociology–•–337 Bryant-45099 Part VII.qxd 10/18/2006 7:22 PM Page 337 well-being of others. Global financial markets and economic competition are challenging the ability of business and governments to provide affordable health care. As such, we can expect that as globalization increases, so will its importance as a major theme in medical sociology (Bury 2005). There are an increasing number of studies examining issues of health and illness in countries other than the United States or Britain—far more than can be listed here. Resources such as Mechanic and Rochefort’s (1996) “Comparative Medical Systems” and Cockerham’s (2004) The Blackwell Companion to Medical Sociology (with its 17 chapters on the United States, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Sweden, Russia, Poland, the Czech Republic, South Africa, the Arab world, Israel, Australia, Japan, and the People’s Republic of China) provide an excellent beginning. The second and related theme is “complexity science.” As argued by a growing list of scholars, and due to key factors such as the information revolution and globalization, anj emerging theme within twentieth-first-century science is complexity (Capra 1996, 2002). One example is the study of complex health networks (Freeman 2004; Scott 2000). While this perspective has been an important part of medical sociology since the 1970s, primarily in terms of explaining the role that social support and kinship networks play in promoting health and well-being, the latest advances in the study of complex networks (e.g., small worlds, scale-free networks) are providing new insights into the processes by which diseases spread and the ways that health care providers can improve the health and well-being of large populations (Watts 2004). As these two new themes suggest, the theoretical framework of medical sociology continues to change to meet the new and contextually grounded needs of health care providers and patients. Medical sociology is—and remains—a theoretically rich area of study.


Medical sociology is a rich and diverse field that has, in its short history, gone through an appreciable amount of institutional and intellectual development. Some of these changes have been good, as in the case of the continuing application of sociological theory to the field. Others, such as the continued institutional difficulties medical sociology has had in finding a home in both sociology and medical education, continue to plague the field, both in terms of its legitimacy and the impact of its ideas. Despite these struggles, medical sociology remains an important part of the sociological family and the field of health care. This is particularly evident given the increasing relevance that health and health care issues have—along with a “sociological understanding” of these issues—to the global world in which we now live. Following a tradition that emphasizes theoretical relevance, the current generation of medical sociologists are once again embracing the latest theoretical advancements in sociology (e.g., network analysis, complexity science, globalization) and advancing them to help us better understand (as a global society) the evolving patterns of social relationship we call health and health care.

Role of Medical Sociologist in Hospital[edit | edit source]

Medical Sociology is a specialization within the field of sociology.Its main interest is in the study of health,health behavior and medical institutions. Illness is viewed not only as a medical problems but also psychological and social problem. The problems presented by patients are not always purely medical but also psycho-social. Diseases such as tuberculosis,leprosy,sexually transmitted diseases have a big social component in their aetiology. Medical sociologist study of social behavioral and cultural factors of illness.A social approach to disease treatment is also emphasized. A successful Medical Sociologist must possess a knowledge of the community and the factors which affects the health of the community. Medical Sociologist will look at the patient illness in a social dimensions. They try to find out root causes of the illness on social ground, rectify the reasons and they will help the physician to understand the actual reasons for the diseases and illness that occurred to the patients. Mostly,Medical sociologist will be functioning as a "Doctor Patient Relationship Officers" in hospital sectors. DPRO role is to associate with the patients and physician to bridge the gap and to provide the holistic health to the patients. Medical sociologist are all like a counselors who council the patient and to understand the social problem. They will try to guide them and make them to realize the actual root cause of the problem.

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Portions of content adapted from Wikipedia's article on Medical sociology which is released under the CC BY-SA 3.0.

  1. Cain, Leonard. 2005. A Man's Grasp Should Exceed His Reach: A Biography of Sociologist Austin Larimore Porterfield. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.
  2. See Journal of Health and Human Behavior 1960 Volume 1, Issue 1.

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