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The social construction of the illness experience

The idea of the social construction of the illness experience is based on the concept of reality as a social construction. In other words, there is no objective reality; there are only our own perceptions of it. The social construction of the illness experience deals with such issues as the way some patients control the manner in which they reveal their diseases and the lifestyle adaptations patients develop to cope with their illnesses.

In terms of constructing the illness experience, culture and individual personality both play a significant role. For some people, a long-term illness can have the effect of making their world smaller, more defined by the illness than anything else. For others, illness can be a chance for discovery, for re-imaging a new self (Conrad and Barker 2007). Culture plays a huge role in how an individual experiences illness. Widespread diseases like AIDS or breast cancer have specific cultural markers that have changed over the years and that govern how individuals—and society—view them.

Today, many institutions of wellness acknowledge the degree to which individual perceptions shape the nature of health and illness. Regarding physical activity, for instance, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that individuals use a standard level of exertion to assess their physical activity. This Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) gives a more complete view of an individual’s actual exertion level, since heartrate or pulse measurements may be affected by medication or other issues (Centers for Disease Control 2011a). Similarly, many medical professionals use a comparable scale for perceived pain to help determine pain management strategies.

A chart of numerical pain levels ranging from 0 to 10 is shown here.
The Mosby pain rating scale helps health care providers assess an individual’s level of pain. What might a symbolic interactionist observe about this method? (Photo courtesy of wrestlingentropy/flickr)

The social construction of medical knowledge

Conrad and Barker show how medical knowledge is socially constructed; that is, it can both reflect and reproduce inequalities in gender, class, race, and ethnicity. Conrad and Barker (2011) use the example of the social construction of women’s health and how medical knowledge has changed significantly in the course of a few generations. For instance, in the early nineteenth century, pregnant women were discouraged from driving or dancing for fear of harming the unborn child, much as they are discouraged, with more valid reason, from smoking or drinking alcohol today.

Has breast cancer awareness gone too far?

Pink ribbon lollipops are shown here.
Pink ribbons are a ubiquitous reminder of breast cancer. But do pink ribbon chocolates do anything to eradicate the disease? (Photo courtesy of wishuponacupcake/Wikimedia Commons)

Every October, the world turns pink. Football and baseball players wear pink accessories. Skyscrapers and large public buildings are lit with pink lights at night. Shoppers can choose from a huge array of pink products. In 2014, people wanting to support the fight against breast cancer could purchase any of the following pink products: KitchenAid mixers, Master Lock padlocks and bike chains, Wilson tennis rackets, Fiat cars, and Smith&Wesson handguns. You read that correctly. The goal of all these pink products is to raise awareness and money for breast cancer. However, the relentless creep of pink has many people wondering if the pink marketing juggernaut has gone too far.

Pink has been associated with breast cancer since 1991, when the Susan G. Komen Foundation handed out pink ribbons at its 1991 Race for the Cure event. Since then, the pink ribbon has appeared on countless products, and then by extension, the color pink has come to represent support for a cure of the disease. No one can argue about the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s mission—to find a cure for breast cancer—or the fact that the group has raised millions of dollars for research and care. However, some people question if, or how much, all these products really help in the fight against breast cancer (Begos 2011).

The advocacy group Breast Cancer Action (BCA) position themselves as watchdogs of other agencies fighting breast cancer. They accept no funding from entities, like those in the pharmaceutical industry, with potential profit connections to this health industry. They’ve developed a trademarked “Think Before You Pink” campaign to provoke consumer questioning of the end contributions made to breast cancer by companies hawking pink wares. They do not advise against “pink” purchases; they just want consumers to be informed about how much money is involved, where it comes from, and where it will go. For instance, what percentage of each purchase goes to breast cancer causes? BCA does not judge how much is enough, but it informs customers and then encourages them to consider whether they feel the amount is enough (Think Before You Pink 2012).

BCA also suggests that consumers make sure that the product they are buying does not actually contribute to breast cancer, a phenomenon they call “pinkwashing.” This issue made national headlines in 2010, when the Susan G. Komen Foundation partnered with Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) on a promotion called “Buckets for the Cure.” For every bucket of grilled or regular fried chicken, KFC would donate fifty cents to the Komen Foundation, with the goal of reaching 8 million dollars: the largest single donation received by the foundation. However, some critics saw the partnership as an unholy alliance. Higher body fat and eating fatty foods has been linked to increased cancer risks, and detractors, including BCA, called the Komen Foundation out on this apparent contradiction of goals. Komen’s response was that the program did a great deal to raise awareness in low-income communities, where Komen previously had little outreach (Hutchison 2010).

What do you think? Are fundraising and awareness important enough to trump issues of health? What other examples of “pinkwashing” can you think of?

Summary

Medical sociology is the systematic study of how humans manage issues of health and illness, disease and disorders, and healthcare for both the sick and the healthy. The social construction of health explains how society shapes and is shaped by medical ideas.

Short answer

Pick a common illness and describe which parts of it are medically constructed, and which parts are socially constructed.

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What diseases are the most stigmatized? Which are the least? Is this different in different cultures or social classes?

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Further research

Spend some time on the two web sites below. How do they present differing views of the vaccination controversy? Freedom of Choice is Not Free: Vaccination News: (External Link) and Shot by Shot: Stories of Vaccine-Preventable Illnesses: (External Link)

References

Begos, Kevin. 2011. “Pinkwashing For Breast Cancer Awareness Questioned.” Retrieved December 16, 2011 ( (External Link) ).

Centers for Disease Control. 2011a. “Perceived Exertion (Borg Rating of Perceived Exertion Scale).” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved December 12, 2011 ( (External Link) ).

Conrad, Peter, and Kristin Barker. 2010. “The Social Construction of Illness: Key Insights and Policy Implications.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 51:67–79.

Goffman, Erving. 1963. Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity . London: Penguin.

Hutchison, Courtney. 2010. “Fried Chicken for the Cure?” ABC News Medical Unit. Retrieved December 16, 2011 ( (External Link) ).

Sartorius, Norman. 2007. “Stigmatized Illness and Health Care.” The Croatian Medical Journal 48(3):396–397. Retrieved December 12, 2011 ( (External Link) ).

Think Before You Pink. 2012. “Before You Buy Pink.” Retrieved December 16, 2011 ( (External Link) ).

“Vaccines and Immunizations.” 2011. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved December 16, 2011 ( (External Link) ).

World Health Organization. .n.d. “Definition of Health.” Retrieved December 12, 2011 ( (External Link) ).

World Health Organization: “Health Promotion Glossary Update.” Retrieved December 12, 2011 ( (External Link) ).

Questions & Answers

what is a religion
Zahid Reply
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Sunil
Religion involve those things which surpasses the limit of our knowledge.
shoaib
What is Social Psychology? and why social psychology?
WILLIAM Reply
learn about the people and understand there need to live in society what there basic need and learning institutions
Ghulammurtaza
Social Psychology deals with the study of individual as part of a group or communty and how they affect each other.
Sadiq
behavior study of humans are there institutions are social psychology but if they are study about society that means the learn about there living structure
Ghulammurtaza
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Hirsi Reply
what is sociology?
Omeneke Reply
It's a field of study which studies about human Society... (to make you more clear... the psychology studies single individual where as sociology studies group of individual who forms society)
sociology is study of socity
Sadia
not only study but it study with scientific method and sociological approach
Rajesh
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Sadia
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Rajesh
hey help me defining sociological guru's ideas
luther
what is culture
Nandala Reply
what is urbanisation
Nandala
What are the weaknesses of the conflict theory
Skeazo Reply
a person who's combination of a particular culture and ethics has a great influence on his personality.
Habibu Reply
ok
Kenneth
what is the main differences between social loafing and social facilitation
godfrey
popuation education major areas
Rakesh Reply
plx i need a better definition of culture
Alqaseem
culture, according to E. B. Tylor (1921), is defined as a complex whole which include knowledge, beliefs, arts, morals, laws,customs , and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society
Adesola
what is orientalists anyone define pls
Anand
hello, I have my sociology exam gcse next Monday and I am so stressed, can anyone give me an advice of how to revise better and lower the stress 😭
Adry Reply
what level are you in the university
raymond
Before i say something
raymond
while we await your response, studies proof that psychology speaks more to condition of such. It concern sociologist most if you talk about culture, values, family, groups, organizations, society etc and not more of single individual/mind. However, tell us your level.
William
I'm in college not uni
Adry
good evening, how did sociology people behave
chukwuka Reply
They are social thinkers.And they adapt to any situation they found themselves.Also,they study in accordance,how the society behaved.For eg,the problem of Nigeria,Boko Haram etc,which is a social problem
raymond
mean that sociology people can stop the Boko Haram issues
chukwuka
As a social thinker,you can proffer solutions to stop this mess in the northern east
raymond
Raymond you are truely a sociologist
cynthia
am just 100level students, I find myself that I don't like talking too much to people, I always like still on my own way of life, is good for a sociology students
chukwuka
According to Peter Berger the people who should “stay away” from sociology are the people that can’t take a diversity of truths, people who are afraid to discover that there is something beyond what is taught to them, people that don’t have the drive to understand that society has many different...
perspectives from which it can be understood and it all depends on where you are standing. People who are used to things being the same all the time and are afraid of change..
If you feel that you fit in... Go ahead...
who is the father of Indian sociology?
The Reply
how does a sociologist do think critically
abdulaziz Reply
what does a medical sociologist is all about
abdulaziz
yes I am from sociology department
Nath Reply
hello
rajae
hi
Nath
hii
Prahallada
I'm new here
rajae
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soely
new here as well
Daphne
hi term paradigm pls
salem
hi
SHASHI
hey
Miguel
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Miguel
paradigm is a group of ideas about what can be done.
Miguel
or how something can be done.
Miguel
pliz help with( the similarities bwn the fanctionalist and the feminist theory)
luther
functional and feminist are the same value in post industrial society and development of civilization in the defernt kind of geographic area.where people live in kinship and responsible .functions are the process of change the life of societies and feminist are the right of women in modern period
Ghulammurtaza
thanks more info
luther
what is kinship ?
Robert Reply
hi
Nath
afternoon
Nath
kinship is a relation
Nath
either by blood or connection
Nath
hi
Ayeshna
helo
ASHRAF
how are you
Ayeshna
hey
Nath
am good
Nath
u?
Nath
am ok nd thanks
raymond
thank you too
Nath
hie please gie me the similarities btwn the fanctionist theory and the feminist theory
luther
functionalist see society as a human body part that functions respectively whilst feminist is a perspective that works to see the needs of men in society (patriarchy)
abdulaziz
functional theory observed the balance and equal barium of the society. they see society is deferent farm. that fiminst are work for equality of gander
Ghulammurtaza
kinship is the vector of responses behaviour of societies with each other
Ghulammurtaza
function is the slowly process for changes of societies through developed and innovation of technology and use term for balance in society
Ghulammurtaza
what joins them [to be one]
luther
kinship is the relationship establlished through marriage or blood ties.blood relatives are cobsanguinieal kins and relatives by relation of marriage are affinal kins.for eg.a woman and her son are consanguineal kins and a woman and her brother in law are affinal kins
sanjukta
blood relatives are consanguneal kins
sanjukta
sorry l mean what join the feminist pespective and the fanctionalist one
luther
freedom for women's life how can survived and what right for doing omin modernization
Ghulammurtaza
what is sociology?
Soccer Reply
sociology is a science which study the society including social relationship ,social interaction and culture......
Akak
Thanks
Ankit
but can u send me syllabus of 12 th sociology
Ankit
and scope of it
Ankit
hello.
Sushant
Scope of scology can u tell me
Ankit
what do u mean by scope of sociology?
James
in simple meaning,social scope signifies the area of study.
Sushant
describe sociology as a science
godfrey

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Source:  OpenStax, Introduction to sociology 2e. OpenStax CNX. Jan 20, 2016 Download for free at http://legacy.cnx.org/content/col11762/1.6
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