Health and Social Influence Essay

In this essay I will be discussing health and health related behaviours and the way they affect our health in every day life. There are many factors I will be discussing how social context, social agents, the health models and the theories of social influence affect our lives. Health is defined as being free from disease and/or illness. There are many ways to be in a healthy state. Medicine is at the forefront of being healthy. It is the main institution that diagnoses, treats and prevents illness and disease, also there are many factors which can aid well-being, including many lifestyle choices and social influences.

Chrisman, (1977), believed there were 4 types of explanations that cause illness; Invasion – where something has come from outside and entered the person’s body, such as a ‘germ’. Degeneration – when a person is run-down. Mechanical – when some part of the body, such as a heart or kidney, malfunctions. Balance – where an individual’s body, life or even relationship with others is disturbed in some way. Many sociologists believe the social context of people has a greater influence on their health than medicine. The circumstances of people’s lives vary a lot throughout the world.

This results in certain people/cultures more likely to contract specific illnesses and/or diseases. For instance in Africa there is low sanitation, especially in the way of getting safe drinking water. The water is often contaminated by various diseases including typhoid fever, cholera, hepatitis A and many parasites which can cause disease or even fatality. The idea of social context is based on our culture, environment and how we interact with it and the people within it. Social factors are very important in the idea of social context.

Examples of these are religion, ethnicity, family, economic status, education, locality, and political systems. All these things affect the way we see the world. If a person is a black, male Jehovah’s Witness he will live by very different norms and values than a white, female Catholic. They will both have completely different views on the world, and will interact with it in their own ways. This is a good example of health related behaviours as Jehovah’s Witness’ are anti-blood transfusions. This would mean that if they become ill due to a blood complication or loss of blood they would recover slower, or not at all, due to their belief.

There are many agents of socialization including family, peers, education, community and culture, mass media and employment. Family has a big influence on your socialisation, particularly at the start of your life. This is an example of the social communication theory. People have an attachment to their family. If in my family my parents communicate that it is the norm to smoke, I will most likely turn out to be a smoker due to the fact that it has never been communicated as wrong to me. Peers have a massive effect on the way people behave. Through the social pressure theory many behaviours can be influenced.

In school this is prominent. These days in school there is a big problem with skiving. This could be due to peer groups influencing particular students who wouldn’t usually skive, to skive. Education has a lot to do with how we view punctuality and work ethic. This is an example of the social norm theory is as much we adopt behaviours that are presented as the norm. If it is the norm at school to turn up on time for class, the students will follow suit. Mass media has a huge effect on our lives. What we see in the media affect our attitudes and ways of viewing things. E. g. n all the magazines size 0 models are plastered everywhere, this gives way to the nation/world believing that this is the norm and will make us want to be the same. This is an example of media exposure theory, social perception theory, social pressure theory, and social norm theory…thus most of the theories of social influence. Gender is one of the agents of socialisation. There are many diseases that only affect a certain gender, e. g. Muscular Dystrophy, haemophilia and colour blindness only affect males. Ovarian cancer, Turner’s syndrome and endometriosis only affect women.

The medical model of health relies on the fact that medicine is the main way to avoid illness through finding new cures and treatments for diseases/illnesses. It is the dominant approach to understanding the body by the medical profession. The mechanics of the body will fail if it is not looked properly maintained, due to individuals abusing their body in many different ways medicine is very much needed in our society to intervene if anything does go wrong. However, Illich, (2000, p. 305) argues that; ‘The medical establishment has become a major threat to health’.

Illich believes that we need to learn how to cope with pain, illness and death as earlier generations did. This states that that the medical profession actually harms public health. This is called iatrogenesis. There are three types of iatrogenesis; Clinical iatrogenesis is based on the idea that many prescription drugs have such adverse effects that they may do more harm than the actual illness itself. Illich says: “the pain, dysfunction, disability and even anguish which result from technical medical intervention now rival the morbidity due to traffic work and even war-related activities” Illich, 1976.

Social iatrogenesis states that people are becoming more and more dependant upon drugs due to the medical profession expanding its knowledge throughout the population, making it passive and docile towards social and physical events which would usually be coped with. Structural iatrogenesis is the view that the medical profession has made the population unable to cope with everyday occurrences such as sickness, pain and death. Illich believes that people now view these things as abnormal and to be avoided, when in reality they are very common, inevitable and ordinary. The so-called health professions have an even deeper structurally health-denying effect insofar as they destroy the potential of people to deal with their human weakness, vulnerability and uniqueness in a personal and autonomous way” Illich, 1976. The social model of health is based on the idea that sociologists believe our environment is a huge factor when it comes to health/illness. Our surroundings play a big part in our health as there are many social factors that can influence our health, such as class inequalities.

In the Victorian days people in a low social class often had (too) many people crammed into tiny houses that weren’t suitable for the amount of people living there. There were low hygiene and sanitation levels. If any person contracted a disease due to poor sanitation, that disease would spread like wildfire through the whole household. Many people also died from what we view minor illnesses due to substandard medical knowledge. Dahlgren and Whitehead (1991) believe that the many layers of influence on health, and how they link together, are critical to the well-being of an individual.

There are 3 layers. The first layer is based on the personal lifestyle choices an individual makes e. g. smoking or not. The second is social and community networks such as neighbourhood watch. These networks can have both positive and negative effects on an individual. The third layer includes structural factors such as living and working conditions and access to multiple services, such as hospitals, disabled facilities etc. The bio psychosocial model is based on the idea that biology, psychology and social factors can all be used to promote a healthy way of life.

The body, mind and environment can all be used, rather than focusing on either the social model or medical model. All can work together to further health. This essay has shown that “health related behaviour is influenced by a person’s social context”. By this we mean that the way people view and treat everyday happenings has an effect on their health. People have many reasons for making certain decisions relating to health, or maybe they have no choice at all and it is dependent upon their social status and/or other social factors.


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