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Sociology of Medicine - What is the impact of Medicalization? A Summary with Examples

Updated on November 16, 2011

As discussed in a previous hub, medicalization happens when we define a non-medical issue in medical terms. This could be manifest in several forms- for example Peter Conrad wrote about hyperkinesis. Other examples include menopause, mental health, addictions.... There are social consequences that result from the medicalization of our human conditions and struggles, which Peter Conrad (2007) wrote about in his book the Medicalization of Society. In this hub, I will address some of the consequences and I hope this will be helpful to anyone who is seeking to understand the sociology of medicine deeper.

When we medicalize certain problems, this can result in more sympathy and less condemnation and stigmatization of those who are suffering from it. For example, if someone commits a crime because of bipolar disorder, or due to an addiction to alcohol or cigarettes, we are less likely to slam the person as being inhumane, stupid, foolish... but instead are more likely to feel a tinge of compassion or sympathy, as the person is not being totally bad, but is suffering from an illness, and he cannot help himself. In cases like this, these individuals receive the help that they need eg. addiction treatment, psychotherapy... and are treated more humanely than if they were having to solely face the criminal justice system. This grace is not only extended to these individuals but also to their families who may be ashamed and disgraced by the crime committed. Medicalization does cushion the negative consequences that one may face, and it also alleviates some of the guilt and inferiority associated with not being ‘normal’ like a typical person.

On the flipside of the coin, medicalization does have several more tricky and sticky consequences. For example, there is the problem of expert control, which occurs when the biomedical field is so dominant in the field of medicine. When something is defined as an illness, medical experts are the 'go to people' who have the authority to manage this disease. This gives medical professionals more power and authority as they are deemed as the experts, while the public is then left without the power or influence to discuss these matters. For example, depression, infertility, addictions are all common facets of our human experience. However, when they are medicalized, doctors become the knowledge experts and the lay public is then deprived of experiencing and managing what ought to be something that is ordinary and normal.

When there is so much expert control, this leads to a greater dominance of the biomedical school of thought. There is hence a real problem of medical social control, as patients are subjected to various treatments whether they like it or not. When medical reasons become the most compelling and overarching reasons for certain treatments, this has the potential to lead to certain practices that may not be ethical.

Besides, medicalization in the biomedical field is so closely linked to the germ and disease theories - that illnesses are caused by diseases or germs. This when we medicalize conditions, what happens is that we are engaging in the individualization of social problems. When experts look for causes or solutions to complex problems in individuals, they neglect the social system. Sometimes, behaviors such as addictive behaviors and even infertility might be an adaption or coping strategy with social triggers and causes instead of purely medical origins. Thus when this occurs we might forsake what might be the root cause of a condition, and we become guilty of blaming the victim (William Ryan, 1971).

The last consequence is the depoliticization of deviant behavior, which essentially refers to removing the political aspect or influence from health. If a person’s health is individualized, social environments are then neglected, and the jobs of those with political authority to create our social landscapes are then lightened and trivialized since health and well-being is not affect by housing conditions or other environmental and social factors. In Peter Conrad’s article in the Medicalization and the expansion of medical categories, he gave the example of the political dissenters in the Soviet Union - these dissenters were protesting legitimately, but those in political power dismissed them as mad persons and put them in mental hospitals instead of acknowledging them.

Thus we see the impact of medicalization is double edged; while it may help those who genuinely need medical attention, it can also be abused by those in authority, causing more harm than good.


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      penop 5 years ago

      really good and structured

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      james 6 years ago

      wow wow great articleee, ver well put thanks

    • Charlotte B Plum profile image

      Charlotte B Plum 6 years ago

      Thank you so much Happyboomernurse for your input. I appreciate your dropping by!

    • Happyboomernurse profile image

      Gail Sobotkin 6 years ago from South Carolina

      This is another thought-provoking article that shows both sides of the issue. I agree with your conclusion: "Thus we see the impact of medicalization is double edged; while it may help those who genuinely need medical attention, it can also be abused by those in authority, causing more harm than good."

      Am rating this hub up and useful.

      Just noticed the Ritalin-O's cereal photo which is very clever.