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Sociology of medicine is the sociological investigation of medicine as a subsystem of the social structure. This label is given to traditional study within medical sociology of the influences social forces have on the sciences, practices, and teachings of medicine, and how these components of medicine, in turn, affect society. Thus, the sociologist of medicine aspires to contribute to the development of basic sociological knowledge using medicine as a social institution worthy of study in itself. The sociologist of medicine is most often positioned outside the medical setting, in contrast to the position of the medical sociologist working in collaboration with medical organizations. The dichotomy of sociology of medicine and sociology in medicine was formalized by Robert Straus in 1957, in an effort to identify the affiliations and activities of medical sociologists in the United States for creation of a communication network among this newly institutionalized professional group. The distinction is, in part, based on the structural position of the scholar, on where the basic professional affiliation of the scholar is held. Sociologists of medicine are likely to hold academic appointments in conventional sociology departments.
Early in the institutionalization process of medical sociology, examination of the methodologies, organization, and structure of the medical institution was an obvious avenue of study, due to medicine’s influence of as well as dependence on social forces. Organizational structure, role relationships, value systems, rituals, functions of medicine as a system of behavior, and social components of health and illness have been and still are predominant areas of study for the sociologist of medicine. During the 1950s and 1960s, however, sociology of medicine took a backseat to sociology in medicine. A majority of medical sociologists were involved in the applied side of the new discipline due to increases in research funding and expansion of medical schools, and well over half of the medical sociologists in the United States were positioned within medical or health organizations. Inadequate access to quality resources was a tremendous difficulty faced by sociologists of medicine who were operating from outside medicine. Sociology of medicine recovered substantially during the cold war as sociology in medicine’s influence declined dramatically and medical sociologists were pushed back into conventional sociology departments.
The sociologist of medicine uses the basic research methods of sociology to generate insights into the properties and patterns of social relationships and social organization of health and medicine. Potential hazards in this pure pursuit of knowledge have, however, been thoroughly documented. Similar to any sociologist involved in scrutiny of organizational systems, a danger faced by sociologists of medicine is a loss of objectivity through identification with the medical organization. Retention of a sociological perspective to serve the basic interests of the discipline while studying health and medicine has proven difficult. This danger has been combated by the positioning of the sociologist of medicine outside of the medical organization. In a response to this positioning, it is argued that medicine’s failure to respond to the sociological critique may be caused in large part by the failure of sociologists of medicine in becoming more actively involved in the social organization and culture of medicine. Thus, maintaining allegiance to the objective pursuit of knowledge for the sake of sociology has often restricted the voice of sociologists of medicine in potential influences of the medical system. This restriction, however, is experiencing change.
From the 1990s forward, sociologists of medicine have had increasing access to research opportunities, and emphasis in the parent discipline on applied sociological work has led to some convergence of sociology of and sociology in medicine. Sociology of medicine retains its focus on the organizational and professional structures, roles, values, rituals, and functions of medicine as a subsystem of the social structure, and on the social psychology of health and illness. The acceptance and pursuit of applicable studies in conventional sociology departments is increasingly pushing medical sociology to deliver a sociology with medicine rather than the dichotomous sociologies of and in medicine. A sociology with medicine contributes to a sociological understanding of medicine as a reflection of social life in general, as well as the opportunity to influence medical and health systems with applicable knowledge.
- Cockerham, W. C. (2007) Medical Sociology, 10th edn. Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.
- Straus, R. (1957) The nature and status of medical sociology. American Sociological Review 22: 200—4.
- Straus, R. (1999) Medical sociology: a personal fifty year Journal of Health and Social Behavior 40: 103—10.
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