Medical Sociology: Definition, History, Scope, Perspectives

The branch of sociology that deals with the study and analysis of medical organizations and institutions, and how social and cultural factors affect the domains of health and medicine, in sociological terms is called medical sociology. It is sometimes, also referred to as health sociology.


It helps in producing knowledge about various methods, the way medical professionals act and interact, and the socio-cultural effects that medical practice leads to. Health is often viewed to be something wholly or primarily a biomedical or individual issue, having nothing to do with other individuals or society. This belief considers that the prime determinants of health are purely biological or depends entirely on the individual.

While most diseases might be entirely based on biological causes, sociologists held that this picture is a little complex one.  Some kind of a disease might not only be considered as a medical problem but a social or psychological problem as well. Diseases can also occur due to the existing social structures, the lifestyle of an individual, their social identities, experiences, etc. for instance, a person belonging to the lower caste might be deprived of certain basic necessities like pure water, healthy food, good medical facilities, etc which may make them vulnerable to diseases. Through medical sociology, the condition of the patients is improved as a wholesome and detailed study is undertaken by the medical sociologist by using their analytical and interpretive techniques. In addition, researches or surveys are done on patients, educating people about various socio-cultural factors affecting health, or by working to prevent the outbreak of any disease, etc also helps is improving medical facilities.

Medical Sociology Notes

Medical sociology is generally taught as a part of the broader disciplines of sociology, clinical psychology or even health studies. It is also combined with medical ethics or bioethics for Master’s degree courses. Its presence in the field of medicine and health is seen in those branches of medical studies relating to the community of Social Medicine and later in General Practices as well reflecting ‘social’ factors as causes of various ailments. It helps in shaping the concepts relating to the fields of healthcare researches, medical economics, medical anthropology, social epidemiology, demography, and ecology.

There are opportunities for those who want to practice this discipline. They can take a degree in sociology and continue to focus on the area of medicine and health care. They can acquire knowledge about the complex process in which social issues affect the health of the people living in a particular society. They can study the already existing data about those effects and offer additional information to them or how those social issues can be solved and eradicated.

Medical sociologists can either serve as healthcare workers, nurses, psychologists, or can go on to develop and analyze policies, work as hospital administrators, and human resource representatives. They can apply their knowledge about the social contexts to facilitate improved healthcare agencies, organizational arrangements, and processes of care. In short, knowledge in medical sociology helps in the improvement of health and wellbeing of the society as a whole.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the entire population of the world closer to the healthcare system. The behaviours and beliefs of members of society affect the pattern of disease spread and the functioning of the healthcare industry and the manner in which healthcare affects the functioning of society and influences the perspectives of individuals. In this regard, it is important to study the relations between society and medical care in terms of culture, social beliefs, healthcare structures, illnesses, among others. The field of medical sociology observes this relationship and analyses the variables associated with it, and the impact it has on society.

Definition and Scope of Medical Sociology

While sociology is a comprehensive study of human behaviour in society, the systematic study of medical sociology studies the ways in which people address health and wellbeing concerns, diseases and illnesses, and medical services for not only the sick but also the healthy. Physical, mental and social aspects of health and disease are studied by medical sociologists. Medical Sociology has two facets. It is the science of the social phenomena of physicians as a distinct class; and the science that analyses the laws governing the relationships between the medical field and human society overall: treating the framework of both, how and why the current conditions arose, what advancement human civilisation has made, and anything else relating to the subject (McIntire, 1991). Medical sociology subjects include the interaction between physicians and patients, the framework and socioeconomic factors of medical care, and the effects of cultural views on disorders and well-being.

The following view points are addressed in the scope of medical sociology:

  1. Observing the spread of diseases among different groups in society and the impact of these diseases on the population. 
  2. Assessing and describing the way individuals react to illnesses, in order to anticipate how they will be defined from the viewpoint of their social and cultural group within that society.
  3. It describes how society dictates illness treatment methods.
  4. Looking at how social institutions help medical organisations in their efforts to care for the ill.


Medical sociology may be traced back to the late 1800s in terms of intellectual development. Sociology and allopathic medicine, two embryonic sciences, began to make contact in modest but major ways in the late 19th century. This historical period saw the beginnings of allopathic medicine’s continuous attempts to cement its professional powers and societal credibility. The early date and limited length of these connections between medicine and sociology reflected a much larger shift occurring both inside allopathy and between medicine and society, as both hurried to confirm medicine’s “scientific side” (Starr as cited in Hafferty, 2019). However, as medicine advanced in clinical efficacy and organisational intricacy, the social and behavioural aspects of medicine began to diminish, with education, research, and principles consigned to “second-order” medical areas like psychiatry and public health. The subject of medical sociology saw rapid development in the 1950s and 1960s, culminating in the early 1970s (Bloom as cited in Hafferty, 2019). Throughout these two decades, the discipline has had significant academic enthusiasm and prosperity, including what is now considered a generous amount of grant money from both private foundations and the government.

Differences between medical sociology and social medicine

Medical sociology is frequently used interchangeably with social medicine, which deals with medical solutions to societal diseases. However, they are different from each other and the following can be used to separate medical sociology from social medicine:

  1. Medical sociology works in various disciplinary settings in research, while social medicine generally functions within the framework of biological and medical scientists.
  2. In both these domains, academic knowledge and skills differ since their purposes are not the same.
  3. In terms of research in the two disciplines, their theoretical approach is not identical. This is due to the fact that the practices in both subjects have distinct intellectual foundations.
  4. While social medicine is practised by professionally licensed doctors in public health departments and social epidemiologists, medical sociology, is carried out by sociologists who work in scientific and academic research in the sociology department.
  5. Medical sociology, however, is concerned with obtaining insights into health issues and providing a contribution to theoretical formulations. As a subject, social medicine assists in defining issues, assessing their nature, and offering or prescribing solutions.

Perspectives in Medical Sociology

  1. Social Structural approaches
    1. Functionalist perspective

This approach to medical sociology is primarily concerned with the concept of the “sick role” and the issue of sickness behaviours. Illness was identified as a social phenomenon rather than a merely medical state by Talcott Parsons. Health, as against illness, is defined as: ‘The state of the optimum capacity of an individual for the effective performance of the roles and tasks for which s/he has been socialised.’ (Parsons, 1951). Thus, from a functionalist standpoint, health becomes a requirement for the proper operation of society. Being unwell means failing to perform one’s duty in society; sickness is thus viewed as ‘unmotivated deviation.’

           2. Marxist perspective

This perspective, as applied in medical sociology, is oriented toward the social roots of the disease. The functioning of the capitalist system is regarded as influencing population health outcomes on two levels. At the level of the manufacturing process, health is impacted either directly through industrial illnesses and accidents, stress-related sickness, or indirectly via the broader impacts of goods production in modern life. Second, health is impacted at the distribution level. The Marxian theoretical perspective or paradigm identifies tensions within power dynamics and other parts of the social structure, which can lead to disease. This viewpoint also stresses the importance of power conceptions and economic structures in healthcare and that they cannot be detached from the character of its healthcare.

  1. Interpretative approaches
    1. Symbolic Interactionist perspective

In this view, healthcare is regarded as a social activity, and its claim to be an objective study is also contested. Patient discontent can occur during the doctor-patient engagement, if the doctor rigorously superimposes an already existing concept, such as disease classifications, over the patient’s subjective sickness experience. For instance, they may assume that they can comprehend what that people are going through based on an assessment of their signs and symptoms without considering their health views.

            2. Social constructivist perspective

The concept of sickness experience as a social construction underpins the concept of illness experience as a social construction. To put it in a different way, there is only a subjective reality; only our views of it exist. The social construction of sickness experience addresses problems such as how some patients manage how they disclose their illnesses and the lifestyle modifications individuals adopt to manage their illnesses. Conrad and Barker demonstrate how medical knowledge is also socially constructed; that is, it may both reflect and reinforce disparities in gender, status, colour, and ethnicity.


Medical sociology is a deep and varied discipline that has seen significant institutional and intellectual growth in its brief existence. Some of these shifts have been positive, such as the continued application of sociological theory to the area. Others, such as the field’s ongoing institutional challenges in finding a home in both sociology and medical education, continue to afflict it, both in regards to legitimacy and the influence of its concepts. However, even with these challenges, medical sociology is an essential member of the sociological family as well as the area of health care. This is especially true given the growing importance of wellness and health care concerns, as well as a “sociological understanding” of these challenges, in the global society in which we now exist.


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Straus, R. (1957). The Nature and Status of Medical Sociology. American Sociological Review, 22(2), 200-204. doi:10.2307/2088858

Bury, M. R. (1986). Social constructionism and the development of medical sociology. Sociology of Health & Illness8(2), 137-169.

Freeman, H. E., Levine, S., & Reeder, L. G. (1979). Handbook of medical sociology. Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs

Gabe, J., & Monaghan, L. (2013). Key concepts in medical sociology. Sage.

Parsons, T. (1951). Illness and the role of the physician: a sociological perspective. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry.

Hafferty, F& Castellani, B. (2019). MEDICAL SOCIOLOGY. In book: Handbook of twenty-first century sociology. pp.331-338. Sage.

McIntire, C. (1991). “The Importance of the Study of Medical Sociology. Sociological Practice 9(1). Pp.30-37.

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Ruthu is a student of Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts, pursuing interdisciplinary studies in international relations, political science and sociology. She is passionate about current affairs, public policies, sustainable development, human rights and quality education. She aspires to have a career in research and academia that allow observation of social reality by combining her subjects and passions in writing.