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Ways of studying Health, Illness and Medicine Sociologically by Miha Alam ( University of Waterloo)

The focus of this article is on four main sociological perspective of studying health, illness and medicine. These four perspectives help construct the knowledge and narrative around meaning, and studying of health and illness. These four perspectives are positivism, conflict theory, symbolic interactionism, and lastly, feminist theory. Positivism, closely associated with structural functionalism, says that sociological is essentially a science where the purpose is to describe the world through a series of universal causal laws. Positivism argues that social world can be studies empirically and there, researchers can remain objective and “value free” when observing.  Further, social facts are studied as if they are capable of directing social norms and regulate human social behavior. Positivists analyze the relationship between social facts and various health related variables. That being said, a huge criticism of positivism is that it strongly believes in objective truth. It denies theoretical and cultural biases that influence results. Another massive criticism of positivism is that it assumes that everything can be measured. Positivism uses methods like questionnaires, surveys, and interviews to study causal relationships and develop knowledge.

Conflict theory was suggested by Karl Marx who claims that society is in a state of perpetual conflict because of competition for limited resources. Social order is maintained by dominance and power and therefore, people stand in different positions in social structures and have different levels of health as well as access to health.


The symbolic interactionist perspective, also known as symbolic interactionism, is the interpretive understanding of social action by understanding the subjective meaning individuals place their day-to-day actions. Simply put, symbolic interactionist approach emphasizes that health and illness are social constructions. Hence, various physical and mental conditions have little to no objective reality but instead are considered healthy or ill conditions only because they are defined as such by society (Buckser, 2009). The ADHD example just discussed also illustrates symbolic interactionist theory’s concerns, as a behavior that was not previously considered an illness came to be defined as one after the development of Ritalin. Another example is obesity; obesity is understood as a health risk. However, “fat acceptance” movements in United States claim that obesity’s health risks are over-exaggerated and hence, society discriminates against overweight individuals.  Researching within the symbolic interactionist perspective becomes complex because different researchers would study different social situations and hence, will have different findings. In this way, what is an illness and how it should be treated differs from society to society.

The fourth sociological perspective is the feminist theory. The feminist theory is rooted in the idea that medical sociology is patriarchal in nature; it has medicalized women’s bodies and women “issues”. In this way, it has claimed dominance over women’s experiences. Feminist perspective shed light on women’s place in social structure and aims to reclaim women’s bodies. Therefore, in the context of research, feminist perspective focuses on asking women to describe their own experiences and their personal take on health issues.

To answer the question, which sociological perspective is the most apt in explaining the way medicine and illness is defined in today’s society, I would have to say that it would have to employ a combination of all four perspectives. Each paradigm helps analyze specific aspect of society to which they best apply. Positivism allows us to study causal relationships between two variables. Conflict approach gives insight into inequality of health and health care. Interactionist approach emphasizes that health and illnesses are social constructions and highly defined by society and its members. Lastly, feminist approach sheds light onto women’s place in society and how women issues are defined in a patriarchal society. Hence, rather than picking one and establishing superiority over the other, each and every paradigm, when employed together, paints a holistic picture of health and illness.