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A Summary of William Ryan and His Idea of Blaming the Victim - Sociology of Medicine

Updated on December 29, 2012

In 1971, William Ryan wrote the book Blaming the Victim. This book continues to make waves especially in the sociology community, particularly among medical sociologists.

What exactly is blaming the victim all about? And how does this all relate to healthcare? In a nutshell, blaming the victim occurs when we neglect the social environment of the individual, and hold an individual responsible for consequences that may or may not be in their locus of control. Blaming the victim is built on the premise of the Just world hypothesis.

The Just World hypothesis (Furnham, 1988) is based on the idea that the world is a just place, and that people ultimately get what they deserve ie. good people get good things, and the wicked will be punished. In the context of healthcare for example, we might say a particular individual had an addiction to alcohol, and suffered from liver cirrhosis as a result. Ironically, we tend to engage in blaming the victim for diseases that we are more familiar with. For diseases that are less understood, we are less judgmental, as we ourselves could fall victim to that illness. Therefore this type of thinking is self protective in nature, as it places large emphasis on rational and lawful patterns of behavior instead of random correlations and relationships.

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In essence, when we adopt an attitude of blaming the victim, we are attempting to change the victim instead of the wider societal sphere. For example, when a patient comes in with health complaints, we blame the patient for smoking, drinking alcohol, not exercising, not going for prevention screenings or regular checkups.... instead of looking at the social factors that might cause or predispose an individual to act in a way that he does. These social factors might include social support, stress, housing type, sanitation.... these are often important factors that play a part in affecting one’s health.

When the doctors adopt a lifestyle explanation for disease, they are essentially putting the blame on an individual’s lifestyle should a person fall ill. For example, doctors say that a person needs to exercise 3 times a week, eat fruits and vegetables, visit the doctor regularly, avoid cigarettes and alcohol.... these all focus on an individual’s locus of control, and stress self discipline and self control. What if the person was so poor he couldn’t afford to see any doctor? What if the person was so poor he could not afford to live in a place with good sanitation? Becoming ill can be attributed to several causes, and when we adopt a perspective that blames the victim, there are implications to this.

Essentially, when we blame the victim, so much attention is given to the individual’s actions, such that the individual’s social environment turns pale in comparison. This results in no inertia to change government policies, industrial practices, environmental or social policies as the employers and authorities responsible for moulding our society are spared from taking any of the blame that might be involved.

With the large swing towards a healthy lifestyle and preventing chronic illness, when we blame the victim by adopting this lifestyle choice approach, we then neglect the fact that their factors external to their lifestyle might be the factor that predisposes them to illness in the first place. eg. living in a place without portable or unpolluted water, not being able to afford healthy food, not being able to refuse risky sexual behavior that might put them at high risk of sexually transmitted disease..... in fact this abolishes the state’s role to ensure that people have enough resource and accessibility to obtain healthcare.

Blaming the Victim by William Ryan

Thus we also see the role of power and inequality in this idea of victim blaming, as when those in power have such a mindset, media campaigns, research funds, resource allocation will all be channelled toward a certain type of message - which stresses the individual’s responsibility and choices, instead of a wider awareness of the social conditions that may be a risk factor of illness.

The biomedical model is the dominant health model in many contemporary industrialized societies, which places much emphasis on making a diagnosis based on the observable symptoms in a person. Thus William Ryan’s idea of blaming the victim is especially valuable, as it points out to us the importance of looking beyond the individual.

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