Medical Sociology and Technology

Critical Engagements

New social movements, revised definitions of patienthood and other broad changes to medical practice are the result of advances in medical technology.

The American Sociological Association founded its Medical Sociology section in 1959 during an innovative moment in medical technology; among that era’s achievements were penicillin and the polio vaccine. The subsequent half-century gave rise to further technological advancement. Today, health care incorporates genetic, nano- and information technologies. Health care organizations are using more complex imaging techniques and digitizing medical records.

This essay from a Journal of Health and Social Behavior supplement provides a snapshot of research into biomedical technology. The authors consider how technologies have reshaped medical practices, reconfigured the human body both physically and conceptually, and aided the emergence of new health social movements. A brief survey of epistemological theories describes contributions from Feminism, Symbolic Interactionism and Foucauldian biopower theories.

Key Findings:

  • New pills and devices that interact with the body are technologies of transformation; for instance, biomedical policy in Brazil dramatically reduced mortality and quality of life for AIDS patients.
  • Social groups have coalesced around techno-scientific identities; for example, women with breast cancer are no longer passive patients; they engage in active self-identification and solidarity with their fellow survivors.

In the past 50 years, medical technology has left behind large machines at the bedside with the emergence of pills and devices that transform the human body. Medical sociologists continue to grapple with substantive and theoretical questions related to medical technology. The authors of this essay urge medical sociologists to undertake interdisciplinary work and forge links with bioethics and neuroethics.

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