How we see illness is socially constructed

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Tuesday, May 6, 2014


SINCE the birth of medical sociology as a distinct specialized field within sociology in the 1940s, there have been innumerable attempts to examine illness perceptions and behaviors using sociological perspectives.

One attempt that I will present in this article is the thought that illness perception is socially constructed: people’s response to illness is based on social definitions that may or may not fall within the pits of medical facts.

Originating from the “Symbolic Interactionism”, a perspective used by sociologists that sees society as the product of daily social interactions of individuals, the perception of illness can transcend beyond the objectivity of the biomedical model and spread towards the subjectivity of the cultural meanings attached to it.

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In fact, as John Macionis puts it in his “Sociology”, “the reality people experience is variable and changing”.

For Stephen Moore, chapter contributor of the book, “Haralambos and Holborn Sociology Themes and Perspectives”: “symbolic interactionists perceive illness as a form of social deviance."

The ‘Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology’ informs that the symbolic interaction perspective sees illness in terms of stigmatization and proposes that societal and cultural influences impinge upon individual’s perception of health, self-determination, and their ability to negotiate their situation.

Therefore, how people behave and react towards illness depends on the seemingly mundane social encounters of daily living.

For example, people in a poor society may view ‘Kwashiorkor’, a form of protein-deficient malnutrition, as normal given the type of society they live in.

But for the developed and developing societies, kwashiorkor is clearly a form of altered health state: an illness.

A similar example is cited by William Cockerham in the book, “Medical Sociology," which explained how the Kuba people of Sumatra view their skin diseases.

Ecologically speaking, these people live in a difficult jungle environment; thus, it is but typical that they sustain skin diseases and injuries on a regular basis to the point of accepting it as ‘normal.’

However, these Kuba people do not consider their skin condition unhealthy because for them, everybody has it and they all share the experience.

One last example was best elucidated by the study of Howard Becker in 1973 when he tried to illustrate the concept of marijuana use in American society.

His findings revealed that there were those who believe smoking marijuana was healthy. On the other hand, there were also those who viewed marijuana smoking as unhealthy.

The examples enumerated above amplify the thesis of sociologist Rosenberg in 1989 that “disease does not exist as a social phenomenon until it is somehow perceived as existing.”

Likewise, these examples are consistent with the “Labeling theory” by sociologists of the 1950s.

According to this theory, society tends to react to a rule-breaking act by labeling it as deviant. In turn, the person labelled as deviant will act out the stereotypes of a deviant.

Having been diagnosed with cancer, for instance, the patient will act out the role expected of a cancer patient depending on the social context and norms in his or her society.

As Cockerham points out: “labeling theory is based on the concept that what is regarded as deviant behavior by one person or social group may not be so regarded by other persons or social groups.”

Therefore, “illness is seen by labeling theorists as a condition created by human beings in accordance with their understanding of the situation,” he explains.

“Labeling describes the process where socially defined identities are imposed or adopted, especially deviant identities,” supports Moore.

He adds: “Such labels can result in the individual being trapped in that identity.”

“A cancer patient may be labeled a cancer patient above all else, no matter how the sufferer tries to persuade others that he or she is still a friend, a lover or a mother who just happens to have cancer,” he shares.

On the other hand, sociologists Peter Conrad and Kristin Barker explain in their scientific paper published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior that the following are salient findings in their study of the social construction of illness:

(1) Some illnesses, particularly embedded with cultural meanings, which is not directly derived from the nature of the condition that shapes how society responds to those afflicted and influences the experience of illness;

(2) All illnesses are socially constructed at the experiential level, based on how individuals come to understand and live with their illness; and

(3) Medical knowledge about illness and disease is not necessarily given by nature but is constructed and developed by interested parties.

It is hoped in this article that the public will widen their perspective about illness to take into consideration the sociological dimensions as well.

[Email: polo.journalist@gmail.com]

Published in the Sun.Star Cagayan de Oro newspaper on May 06, 2014.

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