Sociology of Health and Illness


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In an attempt to understand health and illness in individuals and communities, sociologists have proposed a link between societal behavior and health in human beings. In their studies, sociologists explain that social institutions such as the family and ethnic communities, as well as, the beliefs attitudes and behaviors of most communities have adverse effects on the health of individuals who make up these institutions. More specifically, sociologists have identified social class as a great determinant of the spread of health and illness in most individuals (Timmermans & Haas 2008:660). They explain that access to finances determines the health of mist individuals in two main ways including access to medical services, as well as, health practices among individuals. For example, most sociologists link the problem of childhood obesity with economic empowerment, whereas other diseases such as kwashiorkor are related to lack of economic empowerment. This paper explains how social class has influenced the spread of health and illnesses in individuals.

Key words: Health Sociology, Social Class


In sociology, social class refers to the economic grouping of members in a specific society (Adler & Snibbe 2003:119). Social class is a topic of concern owing to the effects of class on the society as a whole. Sociologists argue that social class has adverse effects on the society in various ways ranging from basic attitudes and behaviours of individuals to the health and illnesses of the same population groups. Fundamentally, three main social classes have been identified including, upper class, middle class, and the lower class of individuals. Also known as the elite, the upper class is mainly characterized by economic empowerment and power. The middle class, on the other hand, is a class characterized by partial economic empowerment, and limited power by individuals who make up this group. Most of the middle class individuals and communities can obtain their needs and requirements but only on limited intervals at limited rates. The last social class is the lower class, which sociologists define as the most economically powerless class in society. Individuals who fall under this class are incapable of affording acquisition of their needs and requirements, with most individuals having to forgo even their most basic needs attributable to the lack of finances.

The concepts of social class stratification further r draw on the idea of health and the attainment of healthcare by individuals. This is because social class determines what individuals can or cannot afford to acquire for themselves. However, before linking these two concepts together, individuals need to understand the concepts of health and illnesses among individuals. Unlike the medical description of health, sociologists define health as the physical or psychological state of individuals (Kinhdig 2007:142). Accordingly, good health is whereby individuals exhibit excellent mental and physical state, whereby bad health or illness is the undesirable physical and mental state in human beings. Accordingly, the link between social class and health can be attained from the examination of the social dimensions of health and illness. Researchers and sociologists emphasize the need for the clarification of health models, as well as, the distribution of these in among social classes as a way of linking health to social class (Kinhdig 2007:150).

This paper explains how sociologists account for the social production and distribution of health and illness in contemporary industrial societies especially in relation to class. The paper explains the link between health and social class in three ways including economic, cultural and social capital approaches. More specifically the paper draws attention to obesity, access to medical services, and alcohol consumption in relation to this.

Relationship between Social Class and Health

The relationship between social class and health is observable across all cultural societies irrespective of the ethnic background of the communities making up the society. More specifically, three main health issues have been identified in relation to this including, obesity, alcohol consumption and access to medical services. These three health concerns have been used to assist individuals in comprehending the relationship between these two concepts. Sociologists have had a hard time explaining the relationship between social class and health, because they have not identified which of these is causative of the other (Adler & Snibbe 2003:123). Put simply, they have not been able to identify whether social class determines health, or health determines social class. For that reason, three approaches have been identified in the link between social class and health including the economic approach, cultural approach and the social capital approach.

Economic Approach

This approach to explaining the link between social class and health suggests resource allocation along social classes determines the health of individuals falling in these classes (Harrison 2002: 856). For example, those in lower social classes, especially the poor, lack the resources necessary for the acquisition of healthcare services thus poor health. Put simply, poverty equals high risk for poor health. Consequently, individuals who are part of the higher social classes have access to plenty of resources, thus have the ability to maintain good health. Studies on the issue illustrate that life expectancy in poor countries is significantly lower than in rich countries, which further illustrates expounds on the economic approach to the problem. Additionally, economic empowerment along social classes implies that individuals with economic resources have the ability to purchase varieties of food items that the less fortunate cannot access. This, in turn draws on the idea of diseases such as obesity and kwashiorkor especially in children. Studies illustrate that obesity is more prevalent in rich national than in poor nations because individuals indulge in binge eating owing to their ability to gain access to a variety of food items that others cannot. Poorer countries, on the other hand, have their populations suffer from diseases linked to malnutrition (Harrison 2002: 860). This is because of the lack of access to food items that are necessary to provide nutrients for the body.

Cultural Approach

The cultural approach towards linking social class and health is mainly founded on the larger concept of health lifestyles among the different social classes. This approach suggests that individuals who fall under the upper and low social classes tend to have similar characteristics in relation to diet and exercise. These people do not emphasize on healthy lifestyles, including diet and exercise, and they tend to indulge in unhealthy activities such as smoking. The only different between the two social classes would be the access to resources to attain their needs . For example, the wealthy and affluent have access to fast food restaurants, hence, will eat a lot of fatty foods. The poor, on the other hand, do not have access to such services; hence will eat what they can find with minimal consideration for a balanced diet. In relation to alcohol consumption, sociologists argue that individuals who make up the middle class have greater tendencies of engaging in binge drinking and smoking than individuals from the upper and lower classes (Layte & Whelan 2009: 400). Evidence that health-risk behaviors and attitudes are unevenly disseminated between the social classes further contributes to the health gradient that is the issue of concern for many researchers.

Social Capital Approach

The term social capital refers to the connection between members of a particular social class with relation to social institutions such as churches, schools, political and social institutions, among other things (Warrens 2009:2127). Sociologists argue that the link between health and social class can be traced to social capital and community cohesion. Studies related to this illustrate that health issue such as smoking, alcoholism are greatly determined by social capital and the ability of social classes to influence individuals into behaving in a certain manner. Individuals originating from the same social class tend to influence each other’s health habits, thus providing a link between social class and health.


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