The Medical and Sociological Models of Illness

But what do we mean when we say something is an illness? The answer is far from obvious. Most Americans are fairly confident that someone who has a cold or cancer is ill. But what about women whose bones have become brittle with age, men who have bald spots, or young boys who have trouble learning, drink excessively, or enjoy fighting? Depending on whom you ask, these conditions and actions may be defined as normal human variations, illnesses, bad character, or bad behavior. As this suggests, defining illness is not a simple task. In this section, we explore how doctors and sociologists approach these issues.

The medical model of illness refers to what doctors typically mean when they say something is an illness. This medical model is not accepted in its entirety by all physicians, but it is the dominant conception of illness in the medical world. In contrast, the sociological model of illness offers a strikingly different way of thinking about what illness means in practice (rather than ideally). This model is most often adopted by sociologists who take a critical approach, and is also some- times adopted by health care workers who share sociologists’ concerns about how social forces affect health and health care. “Key Concepts: Medical and Sociologi- cal Models of Illness,” compares these two models using female sexual dysfunction (FSD), a recently developed and still contentious diagnosis, as an example.

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The medical model of illness begins with the assumption that illness is an objective label given to anything that deviates from normal biological functioning (Mishler, 1981). If asked, most doctors would explain that polio is caused by a virus that disrupts the normal functioning of the neurological system; that menopause is a “hormone deficiency disease” that, among other things, impairs the body’s normal ability to regenerate bone; and that men develop urinary problems when