In any sociological field, those who adopt a critical approach will ask quite different research questions than will others. Within the sociology of health, illness, and health care, this approach translates largely to whether sociologists limit their research to questions about social life that doctors consider useful—a strategy referred to as sociology in medicine—or design their research to answer questions of interest to sociologists in general—a strategy referred to as the sociology of medicine. Research using the latter strategy often challenges both medical views of the world and existing power relationships within health care.
To understand the difference between sociology in medicine and sociology of medicine, consider the sociological literature on patients who don’t follow their doctors’ advice. Reflecting doctors’ views of such patients as problematic, many sociologists (practicing sociology in medicine) have explored ways to encourage patients to comply with medical advice. In contrast, sociologists of medicine have looked at the issue of compliance through patients’ eyes. As a result, they have learned that patients sometimes ignore medical advice not out of foolishness but because their doctors did not clearly explain the prescribed regimens or because the emotional or financial costs of following that advice seem to outweigh the potential benefits. Similarly, whereas those practicing sociology in medicine have studied the experience of patienthood, those practicing sociology of medicine in- stead have studied the broader experience of illness, which includes but is not limited to the experience of patienthood. The growing emphasis on sociology of medicine and on the critical approach has led to a proliferation of research on the many ways illness affects everyday life and on how ill individuals, their families, and their friends respond to illness.