This the fourth in a series of posts which I have written alongside a module I will be teaching which is intended to help non-sociology students to gain an understanding of the sociology of health and illness. While these posts are primarily intended for that audience and are therefore intentionally introductory there might be something of interest to a more general audience. For that reason I have decided to put them on my blog in amongst more specific and specialist writings.

In this post I will introduce the sociological concept of power and how it has been applied to the context of health and illness. First, we will start with a definition of power from one of the earliest sociologists, Max Weber, who proposed that power is

“the ability of an individual or group to achieve their own goals or aims when others are trying to prevent them from realising them”

Max Weber Economy and Society

An important thing to note before we go any further is that power, for sociologists, is relational; it is something which exists between people. It is impossible to be powerful without having someone over whom you wield your power.

Weber divided power into two main categories:

  1. Coercive power –  through force
  2. Authoritative power
    1. Charismatic authority
    2. Traditional authority
    3. Rational-legal authority

Coercive power is the kind that gained from physical or military might whereas authoritative power is gained through social position. It is this second kind which is of most relevance to us. In particular we will focus on how the medical profession is able to define human experience and decide what is considered to be healthy or unhealthy and normal or abnormal.

One of the best ways to explore this is through the concept of medicalization or the “…the intrusion into everyday of life of medical interventions” (Morrall, 2001: 115). This concept captures the suggestion made by some sociologists that our lives are increasingly defined in relation to medical knowledge and practice. Moreover, that we are increasingly encouraged to think that the best way to deal with many problems is through medical interventions (eg. surgery, pharmaceuticals) thus leaving less room for alternative methods.

Why is this a problem? Let’s take an example of something with is an increasing problem in many societies; stress. Stress could be caused by pressures at work or money worries but doctors are likely to prescribe medication, exercise or meditation not changes in exploitative working practices. The focus, therefore, tends to stay on the individual and what they need to do in order to change themselves rather than tackling broader social issues. Arguably, then, medicalization maintains, or increases, the influence of medicine (by giving them more influence in our lives and more “business”) and makes potentially beneficial social change less likely.

In the next post I will address the sociological concept of rationalization and how this affects health, illness and medicine.

Morral, P. (2001) Sociology and Health: An Introduction. London: Routledge.

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