In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Health

  • Introduction
  • Textbooks
  • Handbooks
  • Data Sources
  • Journals
  • Classic Works
  • Measuring Health
  • Social Construction of Illness
  • Health and Illness Behavior
  • Experiences of Illness
  • Doctor–Patient Interaction
  • Learning to Heal
  • The Medical Profession
  • Social Organization of Health Care
  • Medical Ethics
  • Contemporary Controversies and New Directions

Sociology Health
Sigrun Olafsdottir
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 July 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 July 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0024


Medical sociology examines the interaction between society and health. It is a broad subfield that focuses on both macro- and micro-level components of health and illness. It generally focuses on both physical and mental health, although the sociology of mental health has emerged as a distinctive subfield (and is covered only minimally in this article). Medical sociology highlights how issues of health and illness are socially constructed, how social factors result in health disparities, how individuals and societies respond to illness, and how the professions and health care are organized within and across societies. Issues of health, illness, and healing reside at the intersection of multiple disciplines, including social epidemiology, public health, demography, sociology of knowledge, and science and technology studies. However, the distinctive contribution of medical sociology is its intense focus on a more theoretical understanding of health than more applied disciplines would offer, as well as an attempt to understand how the different actors and organizations work together to create the health realities of a specific context. Although all of the major social theorists (e.g., Marx, Weber, Durkheim) paid some attention to health-related issues, medical sociology developed later than many other sociological subdisciplines. Medical sociology has gone through three developmental areas. Early on, much research was classified as sociology in medicine, whereby the sociological perspective was used to solve practical problems within medicine. Later, sociologists used issues of health, illness, and healing as a window for understanding larger sociological processes, for example, the socialization of medical students or the impact of societal institutions on individual lives. Currently, some prefer the notion of sociology of health, illness, and healing, reflecting the realities that not all health-related issues take place within the medical realm. Another unique characteristic of the field is that it developed earlier in the United States as compared to Europe, where medical sociologists, until recently, were largely housed within medical schools. This can be explained partly by research funding for sociological research focusing on health, most notably from institutions associated with the National Institutes of Health, as well as the intense attention several key American sociologists have given health and illness, including Talcott Parsons, Erving Goffman, Howard Becker, and Eliot Freidson.


There are several textbooks and introductory readers available that focus on medical sociology. They can be distinguished into two categories. On the one hand, several books provide a general overview of medical sociology, highlighting the key areas that medical sociologists work on. On the other hand, several readers are available that focus on similar topics but present the information through original articles. The three overview books (Cockerham 2010, Weiss and Lonnquist 2009, Weitz 2009) are all widely used and frequently revised (e.g., Cockerham 2010 is the eleventh edition, Weiss and Lonnquist 2009 is the sixth edition, and Weitz 2009 is the fifth edition). Courses in medical sociology frequently attract students of multiple backgrounds who share an interest in health and health care. Cockerham 2010 provides a relatively uncritical approach to the study of health and illness, which often works well in courses where the majority of students are nonsociology majors. Weitz 2009 takes a more critical approach to the study of health and illness and explicitly challenges approaches that are too sympathetic to the medical approach to understanding health and illness. Cockerham and Glasser 2001 is a reader that can accompany a textbook, perhaps most directly Cockerham 2010, as the sections mirror the section organization of that text. Conrad 2008 also provides a selection of classical and contemporary readings from the field but from a more critical standpoint. Brown 2007 provides a selection of readings targeting key areas of medical sociology, illustrating how issues of health, illness, and healing must be understood in social context, and has a unique emphasis on social movements in health. Daniel 2009 addresses key controversies in the health care field by presenting opposing viewpoints on issues such as the role of pharmaceutical companies in high medication costs. This book can be a compliment to other readings and allows students to debate controversial issues in the field.

  • Brown, Phil. 2007. Perspectives in medical sociology. 4th ed. Long Grove, IL: Waveland.

    A selection of theoretical and empirical articles in medical sociology with a focus on the social context of health and illness, the illness experienced both within and outside of encounters with the health care system, and the health care system.

  • Cockerham, William C. 2010. Medical sociology. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

    A comprehensive overview of medical sociology focusing on the impact of social factors on health, how individuals react to health and illness, the health professions, and social organization of health care.

  • Cockerham, William C., and Michael Glasser. 2001. Readings in medical sociology. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

    A reader companion to Cockerham’s 2010 textbook. The emphasis is on empirical work, both quantitative and qualitative, with few articles focusing on theoretical development. The reader can also be used on its own, especially as some of the articles may be too challenging for an introduction course.

  • Conrad, Peter. 2008. The sociology of health and illness: Critical perspectives. 8th ed. New York: Worth.

    A collection of articles that take a critical view against medicine and the social construction of illness in contemporary societies. The key areas covered are the social production of disease, the social organization of medicine, contemporary critical debates, and possible alternatives to the way we think about and organize health care currently.

  • Daniel, Eileen. 2009. Taking sides: Clashing views in health and society. 9th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill.

    Presents eighteen key issues facing American medicine (e.g., should purchasing health insurance be mandatory?) and presents a set of articles that have opposing viewpoints. This book can be used effectively with other readings to help students engage in debates and critical thinking.

  • Weiss, Gregory L., and Lynne E. Lonnquist. 2009. The sociology of health, healing, and illness. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

    A comprehensive overview of medical sociology with a focus on what medical sociology is, the impact of social factors on health and illness, health and illness behavior, the health professions, and health systems.

  • Weitz, Rose. 2009. The sociology of health, illness and health care: A critical approach. Boston: Wadsworth Cengage.

    Provides a more critical approach to medical sociology in which recent research that questions various assumptions generally made by medical sociologists is questioned. The book is organized into four sections: social factors and illness; the meaning and experience of illness; health care systems, settings, and technologies; and health care providers and bioethics.

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