Towards a Sociology of Disease

This paper explores the writings of Talcott Parsons who first introduced the idea of the social study of medicine to the United States. In contrast to the view that medicine is solely about biology, Parsons distinguished a clear social or psychosocial dimension to health, distinct from biology, that permeates every aspect of health maintenance and is open for social analysis. Over time, Parson’s concept of medical sociology became better known as the sociology of illness and health. Sociologists became interested in how illness permeated family, work and school, and also how individuals prevented health problems in the first place.

The authors examine whether and how social life matters for morbidity and mortality, as well as how morbidity and mortality affect the lives of patients, their families and neighborhoods. To show how little medical sociologists have engaged with specific diseases in the past, the authors review the literature in Sociology and Health and Illness from 1997 to 2006. Only 21 percent (82 out of 387) of articles involved a specific disease, and only 16 percent dealt with disease as a health issue for patients and clinicians. The researchers urge social scientists to expand their current analyses of disease and social life.