Sociology of Medicine: The Importance of Social Conditions in Health
One of the contributions Sociology makes to medicine is that it gives people a broader perspective of health and illness that extends beyond an individual. In the biomedical field, health and illness is largely looked through the lens of the disease and germ theory, where it is a disease or something that can be found within an individual that is causing him or her to fall ill. From a sociological perspective, we are encouraged to look at the social conditions that might predispose someone to falling ill.
In 1995, Bruce Link and Jo Phelan published Social Conditions as Fundamental Causes of Disease - a very crucial article core to the diet of anyone interested to study medical sociology. In this article, Link and Phelan (1995) argued that we often looked at the proximal causes (like the food we eat, amount of exercise) instead of the social conditions (eg. stressful live events, social support) that might increase the risk of someone falling ill.
In this paper, Link and Phelan addressed the important of contextualizing the risk factors, and recognizing fundamental social causes of illnesses.
When we contextual risk factors, we are then able to understand how an individual is exposed to certain risk factors. Through looking at the social origins, we can then gauge if an individual’s illness is context dependent. Very often, doctors will tell patients to change their behavior, to engage in a lifestyle change, change their diets... if we do not know the social context of a person, then changing this behavior will be rendered ineffective if they are living in a context that does not permit this change (eg. unable to afford nutritious food, no time to exercise, having to work odd hours to make ends meet). In fact, without understanding these contextual factors, the burden of changing is born by the individual. This overlooking of social factors then leads to our blaming of the victim, as it becomes the victims‘ fault for eating unhealthily or engaging in unhealthy behaviors.
The second important point is looking at the fundamental social causes of illness. As the term suggests, these causes are fundamental, and basic, present on the outset. These include gender, race, social networks, knowledge, power... which all involve the access to resources that can be used to prevent and manage illness.
Thus researchers need to pay attention to this concept of fundamental social causes especially because having a certain social or economic capital affect areas such as a person’s knowledge, power, social connectedness... that translate into a person’s health.
Even policy makers need to be aware of these at issues, as targeting the correct social conditions instead of promoting lifestyle changes optimizes the health outcomes while reducing the amount of wastage and preventable illnesses. When we contextualize risk factors, policies and interventions will be so much more effective than if we merely prescribe individual interventions. Besides, when a proposed intervention influences fundamental social causes, and addressing the inequality of resource allocation, its impact on diseases then becomes much more widespread, which is much more important.