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Sociology of Medicine: The Importance of Social Conditions in Health

Updated on August 16, 2011

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.


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    • Charlotte B Plum profile image

      Charlotte B Plum 6 years ago

      Hey Judowolf,

      thank you for dropping by too! Unfortunately in our economies so much is based on profit and power. It is true - what you say. I do enjoy reading your hubs - they are insightful and i enjoy your stories too.

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      Judowolf 6 years ago


      Very well written and informative hub. The problem you address will never change unfortunately because our country is based on profit and it is not profitable for the country to care for the weak and poor. Sad, very sad.

      Wayne aka Judowolf

    • Charlotte B Plum profile image

      Charlotte B Plum 6 years ago

      Hi Happyboomernurse, thank you for dropping by! Yes I totally agree with your comment, which is one of the reasons why i thought this hub would be worth writing.

    • Happyboomernurse profile image

      Gail Sobotkin 6 years ago from South Carolina

      Excellent, thought-provoking hub about an issue that should be addressed by the medical community and by the lawmakers and our country's policy makers.

      Nurses have always been taught to consider a patient's social, job and family relationships, but it has become fashionable in society, and more recently in government, to blame diseases solely on the lifestyle factors, forgetting the stressful toll that jobs, lack of jobs and dysfunctional families take on one's health. The way our country is going, it is easy to envision a day when health care "rationing" will occur in order to cut costs and anyone who is overweight, smokes, drinks, etc. will be denied medical treatment because they are seen as being 100% responsible for their diseases.