A person with a venereal disease may be viewed as immoral, whereas the mentally ill are seen as dangerous. We attack social meanings–sometimes very negative ones–to various illnesses, and we expect people to behave in conformity to those meanings. From the interactionist perspective, the health care system is considered a social problem when it produces stigmatized and devalued behavior or self-concepts among either the providers or the consumers of health care. oThis perspective is particularly useful in understanding the societal reaction to some diseases, such as the acquired immunedeficiency syndrome (AIDS), and to mental illness, discussed later in this chapter. Politics, Stigma, and the AIDS EpidemicAIDS is now the leading cause of death among young people. Over 487,000 people in the US have AIDS and 1.1 million are infected with the HIV virus; 50,000 new infections occur each year (CDC, 2013).The story of AIDS suggests the important of the conflict view that is thepowerful who influence what happens in society in the interactionist view that people respond to illnesses in terms of the social meanings that the illnesses are given in a particular social and cultural environment. The impact of social and cultural forces on the treatment of the ill is especially evident and seriously threatening diseases (Sigerist, 1977).
In the case of AIDS, many social and cultural factors came together to produce a significant delay in the attack on the disease (Burkett, 1996;Shilts, 1987). the reasons for this delay were complicated, but some of them are strikingly similar to the reactions to disease among our ancient ancestors. First of all, stigmatization of the supposedly unclean or morally suspectclearly played a role: The disease was linked with homosexuality and illegal drug use. oMany people in positions of political and economic power felt either that these were powerless groups whose problems need not be seriously attended to or that they were disreputable groups whose lifestyles ought to be discouraged if not eradicated. A second reason for the delayed response to AIDS was the Reagan administration's policy of smaller government and greater austerity and social and health programs. Health, Illness, & Society 4.2 Characterize how levels of societal development in a person's social position shape the illnesses that a person is likely to get.
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