Sociological Explanations for Apparent Health Inequalities in Society
In the early years of the twenty first century, with so much evolution in sociological thought having already taken place, no scholar can dismiss theories concerning health inequalities in society. All societies of past and present exhibited fissures in terms of class, gender, age groups, etc. Sociologists have discovered valid correlations between these social parameters and indicators of wellbeing. In this respect, all four prominent sociological approaches to studying health and wellbeing offer their own insights and inputs about the correlations. In other words, the Social Constructionist/Artefact approach, the Social/Natural Selection approach, Cultural/Behavioural approach and the Materialist/Structuralist approach offer different perspectives on health inequalities in past and present societies.
The Biomedical model of health preceded modern sociological health paradigm, where freedom from disease, pain or defect is the core focus. The physician typically inspects the patient ‘after’ the onset of an ailment and studies the pathology of disease, physiological mechanisms at play, as well as the biochemical processes. Under the biomedical model, the emphasis is on ‘cure’ and ‘healing’ through scientific application of medical principles as and when a medical condition presents itself. While this goal is perfectly legitimate, the critics of the Biomedical model point
“assumes a socio-environmental approach to health primarily ‘concerned with risk conditions rather than risk factors’. These conditions include poverty; income, gender, racial, and sexual inequality; stressful environments; housing and living conditions; education and early child care; food security; employment and working conditions; social inclusion and exclusion; and globalization. Efforts to attend to health inequities by anyone working under this paradigm would, therefore, address some or all of these issues.” (Ashcroft, 2010, p.251)
Social determinants of health such as geographical location, gender, age, ethnic origin, education level, governance and socioeconomic status are all factors that contribute to an individual’s health status. Statistics from World Health Report 2001 supports the veracity of these connections. For example, developing nations continue to lag behind in standard of living parameters. Even as globalization has enabled technology aided interconnectivity, hundreds of thousands of people are still living under hostile health conditions (Taylor, 2002, p.25). While the rich nations are getting richer, complete swathes of sub-Saharan people still confront poverty, hunger, illiteracy and threat of infectious disease on a day to day basis. The biggest threat to people in this particular region is HIV/AIDS, an ailment that consumes a million lives every six months in Africa, with sub-Saharan African nations bearing the brunt of this epidemic. This region, according to statistics released by Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, is home to seventy percent of people infected with HIV worldwide. Such numbers betray the socio-political realities of the region, with its attendant failure to invest in public health projects (Kazatchkine, 2007, p.77). They also clearly indicate the validity of sociological explanations for health inequalities.
The connection between the economic status of a country and its ability to deliver robust public health services is an established fact. Also, the litmus test for the efficiency and effectiveness of any public health system is its performance in a crisis situation. Civil societies have come to expect basic protections at the time of these crises. Such emergencies also test a government’s true ability to act under pressure. In other words, “they define a state’s capacity to protect its population while exposing its vulnerabilities to political upheaval in the aftermath of poorly managed crises” (Gorin, 2002, p.56). Many of modern epidemics, including AIDS, polio, and malaria may in a few years’ time even out. But, for a developing nation, new challenges in the form of cancer, road accidents and cardiovascular disease will emerge. Further, although sufficient progress has been made in checking infant mortality rates in the Third World since the 1980s, cases of easily contagious epidemics like tuberculosis have not declined. This goes on to show that the biomedical model of health is inadequate in explaining inequalities in health. It also makes a case for exploring sociological explanations for health inequalities. The Cultural/Behavioural approach, for instance, offers insights into factors affecting healthcare. For example, differences have been noted in health status across various ethnic groups both here in the UK and also in the USA. But there are disagreements and weaknesses associated with this approach. For example, some scholars argue that
“the cultural and genetic factors are of greater importance…In much of the health related literature on ethnic minorities there is a strong tendency for explanations of variations in health status in different ethnic communities to be based on oversimplistic culturalistic explanations. These culturalist explanations ignore social and economic deprivation as being causally related to the development of certain illnesses. For instance rickets among Asian groups is held to relate to the ‘Asian diet’ and lack of sunlight. The fact that Asians live in inner city areas with limited access to park space and limited mobility on account of a real fear of racial discrimination is not taken into account.” (Dein, 2006, p.68)
The Structuralist/Materialist approach to studying health inequalities throws further light on the subject. Recent discussion in the field towards effective actions to tackle health inequalities has seen an increasingly explicit focus on addressing ‘unjust social structures’. Scholars and human rights advocates such as Whitehead, Braveman and Gruskin have attempted to clarify prevailing understandings of health and equity specifically for research and policy purposes. They argue that
“while structures of exploitation and discrimination prevail, the right to health is seriously circumscribed. From this perspective, health inequities are strongly associated ‘with unjust social structures; those structures (that) systematically put disadvantaged groups at generally increased risk of ill health and also compound the social and economic consequences of ill health’. This is significant because the right to health is a basic human right established and ratified by the Constitution of the WHO (1946) and international human rights treaties. Governments who are signatories to such treaties are therefore publicly committed to the implementation of the principles and practices of justice that will secure the right to health for all. Further, such a right is contingent on the equalisation of opportunities to be healthy.” (Schofield, 2007, p.105)
Further illustrating the Structuralist/Materialist constraints for equitable healthcare, the former chief of the World Health Organization, Dr. Gro Brundtland, agrees that there is a disconnection between wealth creation and wider access to public health in a world dominated by globalization. He observes: “Technologies are spreading, communication is worldwide, people know what is available, and yet the dramatic gaps and lack of access to healthcare become greater and greater. We must look upon the world as a shared responsibility so that we deal with the gaps and help those technologies become available for those who don’t have access. That’s the only way to keep globalization from becoming really unhealthy.” (Brundtland, 2001, p.28)