The Social Construction of Illness

Illness is an increasingly public experience shared on the Internet. Medical sociologists use social constructionist theory to interpret the social experience of illness.

Social constructionism holds that individuals and groups produce their own conceptions of reality, and that knowledge itself is the product of social dynamics. There is a distinction between the medical notion of disease and the social constructionist concept of illness. For the medical profession, disease is a biological condition, universal and unchanging; social constructionists define illness as the social meaning of that condition.

This essay, from a Journal of Health and Social Behavior supplement, uncovers the roots of social constructionist theory beginning with Eliot Freidson’s “Social Construction of Illness” in the 1960s and Michel Foucault’s knowledge/power paradigm in the 1970s. The authors consider socially stigmatized and contested illnesses, drawing a distinction between impairment and disability. The authors make policy suggestions that address the treatment and diagnosis of contested illnesses and explore feminist claims that medical discourse is imbedded with fixed notions about women’s place in society.

Key Findings:

  • In social constructionist theory, impairment refers to a physical illness or injury; disability is the social experience of impairment.
  • Illness can reshape an individual’s identity. For example, deafness can be a cultural identity that supplants individual identity.
  • Medicalization—the act of reducing illness to strictly a medical definition—ignores the social context of disease.

This essay analyzes topics in medical sociology using social constructionist theory. The authors explore the cultural meaning of illness, discuss how individuals experience illness, and critique the foundations of medical knowledge.