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Title:   Sociological perspectives on health and illness emphasise that it is vital to understand structural and social factors in order to fully understand people’s experiences of health and illness.   Discuss using examples from your work/life experience and support these with theories from the module. 

Introduction

Sociology is a broad discipline that relates to other disciplines such as medicine. In particular, sociological perspectives on health and illness provide an in-depth understanding of the linkage between societal and health patterns. The sociological perspective explores the impact of different social factors such as social class and power, ethnicity, and gender on the process of acquisition of knowledge on various illnesses. The level of awareness influences individual and societal behavior towards engaging in preventive measures or seeking treatment for different diseases and ailments. What is more, sociological perspectives help in understanding causes of diseases that emanate from social organization, which informs the preventative measures taken to curb spread of such diseases. Sociological perspectives on health and illness are an important facet in medical sociology and the medicine field.

Sociological theories provide information used to explain the sociological perspectives on health and illness. Some of these theories include the political economy theory, functionalism, and feminism (Giddens 2010). These theories help in the process of understanding the existent relationships between social agents. In this case, social agents refer to people, culture, ideology, and organization. Additionally, the theories help in the process of understanding the environment that facilitates the creation of medical-related knowledge in the general population.

Without a doubt, sociology and sociological perspectives on health and illness help in the process of deciphering social patterns that relate to the spread and prevention of diseases. In particular, the discipline provides a unique perspective for exploring the causes of diseases and ailments. It helps to form part of an expanded understanding of diseases from the traditional biological explanations. Moreover, sociological perspectives help planners to put in place viable mechanisms to check the spread of diseases based on social factors including socio-economic class, gender, and ethnicity.

Political Economy

The Marxist school of thought influences the political economy theory heavily. It forms the basis upon which an individual fathoms the rise of capitalist tendencies and consequently, the emergence of social classes (White, 2009). In this context, this school of thought postulates that certain economic interests lead to production of diseases and consequently, the mechanisms put in place to address the spread of a disease. The Marxist ideology claims that the profit-making motive is the primary objective for different players in the medical fraternity, specifically, the healthcare providers.

The political economy influences the access to quality healthcare services among different people. Of course, individuals with high income can afford quality medical services, which reduces the mortality rate in that particular class. Equally, individuals who belong to the middle class can afford quality healthcare based on arrangements such as insurance schemes that enable them to make moderate payments in anticipation of diseases in future. However, the lower social class that comprises of individuals with meager income suffers the brunt of the political economy. Obviously, these individuals cannot afford good medical services and rely on the public health system. As pointed out by Armstrong (2003), low financial and human resource investment in public healthcare systems affects the quality of medical services and that of life among individuals from the lower social class.

The political economy of a country affects access to quality medical services among individuals from distinctive social classes. The political class that controls the policy-making process in different countries does not comprehend and appreciate the difficulties that common citizens face in their quest to get quality medical services. In fact, the reason that the ruling class cannot understand such difficulties is that it belongs to the upper social class thus can afford quality health care (Gidden, 2010). The above differences in level of income and profit-making motive among health-care providers lock out the poor and influence the patterns of spread of different diseases.

Undoubtedly, the political class influences the economic and social policies in a country. In this regard, politicians should take into account the needs of all citizens, even though they do not understand some of the needs. Such a move would influence the disease spread patterns such as prevalence of waterborne diseases in some developing countries. Similarly, access to quality healthcare in developed countries such as the United Kingdom would help reduce the mortality rate from diseases such as cancer among the low class citizens. Moreover, it would help address the notion that healthcare providers ascribe to the profit-making motive, as highlighted under the Marxist ideology, at the expense of protecting life.

Functionalism

Functionalism is a sociological theory whose main argument is that society consists of different parts that perform specific functions. Noteworthy, the proper functioning of all parts that form a society helps to create stability and order (Ransome, 2010). In particular, these parts, including family and state, are interdependent thus a malfunction in one of them affects the whole system. Moreover, each part fulfills specific needs for different members of society. Functionalism as a sociological theory was advanced by Emile Durkheim first, but was later adopted as a mainstream sociological theory based on the work of other sociologists including Robert Merton.

Functionalism revolves around the basic operation of society. In particular, the theory explores the role of the family unit, the state, and religion. The roles of the institutions come to the fore as they help in maintaining social equilibrium (Ransome, 2010). For instance, the family forms the basic unit from which individuals understand and appreciate the values and norms of society. Based on the interactions at the family level, all individuals understand societal expectations and work towards ensuring that their behavior conforms to such expectations. On its part, the state provides essential services including education, security, and health. Family members attend educational institutions where they acquire knowledge and skills that make them an essential part of the human resource in a country. They then provide the labor that drives the production processes in the country and in turn get salaries and wages as remuneration.

The interdependent relationship between different parts of society means that an incident that affects a single part affects the whole system. Certainly, this relates the sociological perspective of health and wellness, and in particular, the health status of the general population. Undeniably, the population in a country or a region is the main source of human resource. Therefore, it is imperative for the state to ensure that households have adequate incomes to maintain proper diets and nutrition. Furthermore, members of different households in a country or a region should be in a position to access quality health services. Such efforts help in the process of maintaining a healthy nation. In this regard, when one part of society such as households or families becomes unstable due to low income, the culminating situation inhibits nutrition and access to health services and in turn affects the health of the workforce available for production activities in the economy. As a result, the state loses production hours and income that would have been generated in that time and the taxes from goods and services produced (Fox, 2015). The scenario portrays the interdependent nature of the different parts of the society as explained under functionalism.

Feminism

Feminism touches on the aspect of gender equality and access to economic and social opportunities among members of different genders. In particular, the concept relates to the rights and privileges that women enjoy within a patriarchal society. Noteworthy, feminists argue that the patriarchal society has always advanced certain ideologies aimed at maintaining the status quo. In addition, they contend that health issues concerning women often revolve around reproduction and this helps to propel the patriarchal nature of society (White, 2009). Obviously, women have many more health issues but all the attention is directed towards reproductive health issues, a situation that often leads to misuse of resources. Such resources would be helpful in addressing other pertinent matters relating to women health.

Feminists insist that the sociological perspective associated with the health of women helps to drive the notion that women are inferior to their male counterparts. Specifically, the notion suggests that the role of women is constrained to domestic chores and child rearing (White, 2009). As one would agree, such a perspective limits the potential amongst women, as most of them are not in a position to join male-dominated fields. Moreover, the notion holds that women can only perform simple domestic chores and specific jobs in different fields including medicine. For a long time in the medical field for instance, the job of a nurse was a special preserve for women. The contentious issue that arose at that time was whether women would hold any other positions apart from being nurses in the medical fraternity. However, the inferiority perspective associated with women continues to decline in most developed countries such as the United Kingdom. An increased number of women have taken up careers other than nursing within the medical field and this has increased their contribution in the field. A similar scenario continues to replicate itself in other professional fields.

Clearly, sociological theories provide a vivid illustration of different sociological perspectives used to explain health and illnesses. The theories are based on various social factors including social class, culture, ethnicity, and gender. Specifically, the political economic theory revolves around capitalist tendencies and their role as inhibitors to the access to quality healthcare among members of lower socioeconomic classes. In the same breadth, the functionalism theory exemplifies the interdependence between different parts of society. The theory is premised on the fact that society comprises of different parts and as such, all the parts should operate well to realize stability within it. On its part, feminism focuses on women. It specifically addresses the perception and role of women in a patriarchal society in relation to health issues. Indeed, all the theories provide a good basis for understanding the sociological perspectives concerning health and illness. They additionally highlight several factors that can be explored further in an effort to understand the distribution of health and illness.

One of the factors that affect the distribution of health and illness is class. In the context of this paper, class refers to the socioeconomic status of different individuals that has a direct impact on their access of essential health services. Obviously, individuals with low income face huge budget constraints that affect their ability to allocate adequate funds to essential medical needs (Oliver and Mossialos, 2004). In this regard, income inequalities contribute to unequal access to quality health services. It also increases the incidences of certain diseases and mortality rate among individuals from low social classes.

I have always wondered about the high prevalence of pneumonia among homeless persons. In particular, I was once disturbed by the case of one homeless person, Zack, whom I had become fond of while volunteering at a homeless shelter. This particular individual would come in for food supplements and leave for the streets. Due to the exposure to extreme weather conditions, especially cold nights, he struggled with bouts of pneumonia constantly. He would go to the local hospital and get the requisite dosage for treatment but he lacked medical insurance. Of course, lack of medical insurance meant that the hospital was not in a position to admit him for further observation, a factor which further contributed to the constant bouts of pneumonia.

The case of Zack presents a classic example of the impact of class on access to quality medical care. Individuals like Zack lack a constant source of income and thus cannot buy medical insurance policies. Lack of an insurance policy means that while Zack and other people like him can enjoy the free outpatient services that are available at different hospitals, they cannot access in-patient services or those from a chest specialist. Obviously, they cannot pay for such services, which affects the quality of their lives. Furthermore, the risk of mortality because of constant bouts of pneumonia increases. It is worth noting here that the incidence of respiratory diseases in the United Kingdom, as noted by Badiaga, Raoult and Brouqui (2008), continues to rise even as it affects at least twenty percent of the population.

Of course, low-income household affects other factors such as access to education that contribute, albeit indirectly, to the sociology of health and illness. Education provides a basis upon which an individual gets in a position to understand basic health information and related issues. Based on the comprehension of this information, an individual is in a position to take appropriate preventative measures. In a situation where an individual does not access basic education and does not develop basic literacy, it becomes difficult for him to even understand basic medical instructions (Bradby, 2009). Indeed, lack of education and its impact on the ability to understand basic health instructions is a vicious cycle that affects an individual and society.

The case of Zack provides a good illustration of the relationship between social class and access to basic services including health and education. Certainly, Zack does not have any source of income thus cannot afford health services. In addition, he lacks basic literacy skills meaning that he is not in a position to follow a drug prescription to the letter as directed by a doctor. This means that there is a risk that he might probably fail to finish the dosage as prescribed or fail to observe other treatment measures as explained by the physician. Failure to abide by prescription reduces the chances of recovery and increases the risk of re-occurrence of a disease.

The status of Zack as described in the case also helps to relate social class and functionalism to some extent. The fact that the homeless man is not involved in any economic activity means that he does not contribute to the overall productivity of the economy. Of note is that basic literacy skills could have enabled him to access a minimum wage job, support himself, and most probably take some form of health insurance. Of course, he would not be living on the streets meaning that the local government would not be obliged to provide him with food and shelter. In essence, he would be an economically productive individual reducing the burden on state to provide for his basic needs. Unfortunately, he is not an economically productive individual, which puts some strain on the state as it tries to meet his basic needs. Certainly, this results in social disequilibrium as described by functionalists. Therefore, the functionalism approach relates to the concept of social class.

Another social factor that determines the health and illness in a society is gender. The feminist approach provides the basis upon which one may address the issue of gender in relation to sociology of health and illness. First, it is important to understand that different societies have diverse norms and values. However, the patriarchal nature of many societies has perpetuated a distorted perception of women. In particular, women have always been perceived as the “weaker” gender who cannot perform important and influential roles in society (Wilson, 2005). Nonetheless, the continued emancipation of women means that this patriarchy-based perception continues to dwindle as the influence of women increases within social, political, and business circles.

Accordingly, the sociological perspective relating to health issues among women has changed from the constraints of undivided attention to reproductive health to including other illnesses that affect both men and women. Actually, other medical issues such as breast cancer have taken precedence over reproductive health issues in relation to women. The paradigm shift is in line with change in the role of women in different societies (Woodward, 2004). As a matter of fact, most societies especially in the West have made commendable progress in their efforts to elevate women.

Additionally, the human society understands that diseases and conditions that previously affected men can affect women as well. For instance, women working in the mining as well as oil and gas industries are susceptible to respiratory diseases just like their male counterparts. Therefore, any preventive and curative measures that were initially focused on men only should now include women working in such industries too. Without a doubt, the change in perception about women has affected the sociological perspective of women in relation to illness and health.

Other social factors linked to the sociological perspectives include age and disabilities. In particular, age refers to the specific demographic characteristics used to describe relationships between age and social trends in health and illnesses. Some diseases affect specific segments of the population making individuals in those age brackets highly susceptible to some ailments (Wilson, 2005). For example, osteoarthritis is quite common among individuals who are sixty years old and above. In particular, patients suffering from such problems complain about severe pain on their joints mainly due to the worn out cartilages. Moreover, the disease affects the mobility of older persons thus making it difficult to move from one position to another. Older persons are also highly susceptible to other disease such as arthritis, cardiovascular diseases, and dementia.

Given that a group of individuals can be at a high risk of contracting certain diseases, it is imperative for individuals in such a group to understand the importance of nutrition and maintaining healthy eating habits and lifestyle. Positive adjustments made to their lifestyles can result in wholesome changes in behavior. As a result, it becomes easy to associate age with behavioral patterns and consequently, social trends among a specific segment of the population.

Physical disability can also influence the behavior of individuals. Specifically, physical disability affects the normal functioning of an individual meaning that he or she needs to make considerable changes to adapt to a new environment. Obviously, such individuals face a myriad of challenges during the transition and adaptation period that affects their behavior. Certainly, it is important to understand the challenges that individuals living with disabilities face in an effort to understand their behavior that includes their coping mechanisms when in a new environment. When a disabled individual cannot easily cope in a new environment, they may develop other health complications that may make them suffer even the more. When the social environment cannot readily accommodate such an individual, they are likely to suffer from a serious psychological symptom in the form of depression (Psarra and Kleftaras, 2013). The situation often arises when a disabled individual finds it difficult accepting their new condition of being permanently disabled. In this respect, the structural factors in society or an environment should be supportive enough of such people. They should feel cared and catered for by social constructs that guide society. If not, their new situation can easily culminate into other health and illness issues.

Conclusion

It is imperative that an individual who wants to understand the sociological perspectives on health and illness comprehends underlying social factors. In particular, the individual should seek to understand sociological theories that act as the source of social factors that form the sociological perspectives on health and illness. It is easy to derive social factors such as class from the theory of political economy and particularly the Marxist school of thought and gender from the feminist perspective. Clearly, sociological theories provide an excellent basis for understanding factors that form the sociological perspectives of health and illness.

Bibliography

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Bradby, H 2009, Medical sociology: An introduction, Sage, London.

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Giddens, A 2010, Sociology (6th ed.), Polity Press, Cambridge.

Kennedy, P and Kennedy, C 2010, Health, medicine and society, Polity Press, Bristol.

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