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Health and Illness



Sociologists study social understanding of health and illness, as well as medicine as a social institution. Social stratification shapes the access different social groups have to health and health care. These inequalities exist within societies and on a global scale. Measures such as average life expectancy are higher in high-income countries with developed infrastructure. In the United States, poor health is closely linked to lower socioeconomic status. The system of health and health care in the United States is influenced by concerns over costs, profits, and determining necessary types of care.

Sociological approaches to understanding health, illness, and health care systems include analysis of how they impact social order, how they relate to social conflict and inequality, and how societies construct definitions and expectations of health and illness. Sociologists also study the social identities of health care providers and how social factors influence decisions to pursue professions in health care. They examine trends such as medicalization, the tendency to define conditions as illness, the growth of alternative medicine, and changing approaches to mental illness. They also research social norms around death and dying, including how social and cultural identity can impact attitudes toward end-of-life care.

At A Glance

  • Factors such as socioeconomic status, race, and gender shape people's health and access to health care.
  • Health and access to health care are closely correlated to a country's wealth and level of infrastructure.
  • In the United States, the health insurance system includes private companies and publicly funded programs.
  • Health maintenance organizations focus on keeping the cost of medical care down, while shaping decisions about what treatments are considered necessary.
  • Most U.S. hospitals are managed by nonmedical professionals and earn huge profits; doctor-run hospitals tend to rank higher in terms of quality.
  • U.S. health care costs per capita are the highest in the world.
  • Functionalism considers how health and illness impact social order, as well as the roles of patients and health care providers.
  • Conflict theorists analyze how health and health care reflect inequality and competition among social groups.
  • Symbolic interactionism argues that the meaning of health and illness are dependent on historical, cultural, and situational contexts.
  • Social and cultural factors influence doctor-patient relationships, communication, and treatment.
  • The medical workforce is less diverse than the U.S. general population, in part because of the levels of education and debt associated with these professions.
  • Alternative and complementary medicine include treatments provided outside of mainstream medicine and the medical model.
  • Social norms and values impact the definition and treatment of mental illness.
  • The number of identified mental illnesses has grown, along with an increase in medication and therapy and increased positive views about mental health treatment.
  • Factors of identity, including socioeconomic status, gender, sexual orientation, race, and ethnicity, are linked to issues of mental illness.
  • Medicalization, the tendency to define conditions as illnesses that require medical intervention, is linked to capitalism and corporatism.
  • Advances in medicine that extend life can raise social and cultural questions about death and dying.
  • Race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, and other factors shape how different social groups view death and end-of-life care.
  • The Kübler-Ross five stages of grief describe the psychological process individuals go through when they understand that they or a loved one has a terminal illness.