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Sociology of Medicine : Medicalization of Deviance


Medicalization is an issue that is dear to the sociology to medicine. In essence, medicalization occurs when we use medical terms to address non-medical issues, and treat them as medical problems such as illnesses or diseases.

Peter Conrad wrote the book The Medicalization of Society in 2007 that is a key contribution to our understanding of the sociology of medicine. One classic example of medicalization that is often used is Peter Conrad’s (2007) article The Discovery of Hyperkinesis: Notes on the medicalization of Deviant Behavior. In this article, Peter Conrad documents how hyperkinesis (attention deficit, hyperactivity as more of us might know it) became a medical term. Initially, children very very active behaviors were considered ‘normal’, or perhaps much more active, curious, anti-social, rebellious or stimulated than the average child.

Slowly, the pharmaceutical revolution in psychological disorders increased the status of the use of medicines for childhood disorders, and a growing interest in child psychiatry gave a credible foundation to educate the public about this new disorder. Alongside these, there were social agents and moral entrepreneurs (individuals who construct and label a particular social phenomenon to be problematic) like pharmaceutical companies that served to construct hyperkinesis as a medical problem that medical doctors ought to provide medical diagnosi or medical attention.

In sociology, any behavior that is not approved or considered to be beneficial to society is considered to be deviant behavior. Deviant behavior could be committing crime and going against social norms, such as dressing inappropriately, engaging in deviant sexual behaviors, stealing, vandalism, telling lies... Did you know? Being sick is considered also to be a deviant behavior, as being sick does not allow individuals to perform their role in society - which is to be a worker in the capitalistic market system.

Thus medicalization is seen to be a form of control that kicks in when the social system fails to handle these deviant behaviors. This especially so when the deviant behaviors are created by the upper social classes - the bourgeoisie who have economic and political power over the proletariat, the lower and working class; which removes the stigma of badness and replaces it with a sickness label, so a person is found to be less accountable of his or her own actions, as it was committed out of sickness instead of bad intentions. As medicalization is facilitated by the legal institutions, medical professionals, and other social institutions, it becomes a form of social control.

While doctors and medical professionals used to be the main agents of medicalization in the past (1970s-1980s), today there has become a shift in the engines of medicalization - the old pattern is changing from the paternalist model to the consumerist or mutuality models. In a nutshell, the paternalist model is where patients played the sick role with low control while their physicians had high control and power regarding their treatments. On the flipside, the consumerist model is where consumers have high control over their treatments while physicians have low control - imagine patients now being able to seek second opinions, choose their doctors, engage in alternative and biomedical treatments at the same time. The mutuality model is where both physicians and patients have high control over medical treatment. A good example would be where patients are largely educated and able to research their illnesses over the internet before consulting the doctor, being able to suggest and consult medical treatments, and refuse or negotiate certain assessments or medications.

In fact, there is a very strong trend towards consumers and economic markets being the driving force of medicalization. For example, the pharmaceutical industry makes millions from selling medications such as viagra, anti depressents.... insurers also have interests in the expansion of medicalization as this affects their claims. Creating new markets for diseases like depression, virility, and turning normal human struggles into medical conditions (such as infertility) affects economic profit.

Thus we see how behaviors and health conditions that are not socially accepted with yet unapplied medical definitions do serve as potential issues that can be medicalized. Medicalization for issues such a menopause can help many of those who might be suffering in silence, and who genuinely need help - however there can also be drawbacks when we are medicalizing ordinary human conditions.

Next: The Social Consequences of Medicalization

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MarkMAllen15 on July 18, 2011:

Good article. Thanks for sharing.

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sick kunt on May 28, 2011:

I believe medicilisation of some deviant behaviour is just the smoke, it is really another way to make money in this capitalist economy.

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