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Sociology ­ Health
Definitions of health
There are two main perspectives on health:
The biomedical model (favoured by scientists) says that health and illness are
caused by factors within the body.
The social model (favoured by sociologists) says that health and illness are caused
by factors outside the body.
The biomedical model says health and disease are natural, physical things. The model has
three characteristics:
Health is seen as the absence of biological abnormality.
The human body is likened to a machine in that it needs to be repaired by treatment
when it breaks down.
The health of society is regarded as dependent on the state of medical knowledge.
Nikky Hart (1985) identifies five features of the biomedical model:
1) Disease is physical ­ the biomedical model concentrates on physical symptoms of
disease, not social and environmental factors. Disease happens in an individual's
body, not as part of society.
2) Doctors are an elite ­ The medical elite are the only people sufficiently qualified and
skilled to identify and treat illness.
3) Medicine is curative ­ the body can be repaired with drugs and surgery.
4) Illness is temporary ­ illness can be cured by the medical elite. Wellness is the
normal state of affairs.
5) Treatment is special ­ treatment of diseases takes place in recognised healthcare
environments (e.g. doctors' surgeries, hospitals), which are distinct from the
environment where the patient got ill.
Example: a biomedical view of disability ­ the biomedical models looks in at the patient and
tries to fix the disability through medical practice (physiotherapy, surgery, wheelchair, braces
etc.). The medical practice is interventionist ­ it's something that's done to the patient.
The biomedical model has been criticised:
Some sociologists say that improved nutrition and hygiene have been more important
in improving health.
Some medicine actually creates disease.
Marxist sociologists accused biomedicine of distracting attention away from what they
see as the real cause of illness ­ the social causes.
The biomedical model can be viewed as stigmatizing people who have had an illness
or disability ­ it views illness or disability as something abnormal that should be fixed.
The tend to deal with the symptoms of each case separately and ignore social
A "social construct" is an idea that's created by society ­ as opposed to an idea that's based
on objective and testable facts. It's specific to the values and behaviour of that society ­ it's

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Sociology ­ Health
not universal. But people living in that society will usually accept it as natural and "common
The medical elite haven't always dominated the definition and treatment of illness and
disease ­ it's a modern phenomenon. For example, mental illness was often thought to be
caused by evil spirits in the past ­ a religious thing, not a medical thing.
In modern society illness is only recognised as serious if it has been diagnosed by the
medical elite.…read more

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Sociology ­ Health
Inequalities in health
1. The working class have a higher infant mortality rate than the national
average. The wealthiest social groups have the lowest infant mortality rate
than the national average.
2. Working class people are statistically more likely to suffer from serious
medical conditions such as heart disease, strokes and cancer.
3. Working class people are more likely to die before retirement age than the
national average.
4.…read more

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Sociology ­ Health
Most sociologists agree that economic deprivation is probably the major factor causing
health inequalities, even if they don't agree exactly why.
A major government survey confirmed that the poorer you are, the less healthy that you are
likely to be. It is also found that those with the most need for health care get least and those
with the least need for health care get the most. This is called inverse care law.…read more

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Sociology ­ Health
Competition between health care providers means that two hospitals very close
together might offer almost exactly the same services. This can also be seen as a
waste of money.
In 2003, New Labour introduced Foundation Trusts to the NHS. Hospitals run by the
Foundation Trusts are often called Foundation Hospitals. The government's target is that all
NHS trusts will have foundation status as soon as possible. Unlike traditional NHS trusts,
Foundation trusts are independent legal entities owned by their members.…read more

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Sociology ­ Health
Joan Busfield (2001) thinks that women might be diagnosed with more than their fair share of
mental illnesses because of sexism in the maledominated medical elite. She thinks that
doctors label and interpret behaviour differently depending on whether it's a man or a woman
doing it. For instance, an angry, stressed, upset woman might be labelled mentally ill but an
angry, stressed upset man might just be "overworked".…read more

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Sociology ­ Health
people's problems are seen as suitable for medical intervention. This is called
medicalization of social life.
3) Cultural iatrogenesis ­ the destruction of traditional ways of dealing with and making
sense of death, pain and sickness.
According to functionalists like Talcott Parsons (1951), doctors have an important function in
society ­ the control the amount of time people take off work and family duties.…read more


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