The Word as Scalpel: A History of Medical Sociology

By Samuel W. Bloom | Go to book overview

5
Regional and
Intellectual Influences

After dominating American sociology for the first third of the century, the University of Chicago yielded to the East Coast Ivy League Universities of Harvard and Columbia as the center of influence. 1 Included was a change of focus from the field-centered study of Chicago as an urban laboratory to European-based theory. The strength of the Midwestern research preference for positivism and data-based methods was by no means lost, but the paradigms of structuralfunctionalism and Marxist dialectical materialism now found distinctive American interpretations, heightened by the deep economic depression of the thirties and the events that anticipated the oncoming European war. At the same time and in similar ways, medical sociology groped for a distinctive voice. However, it was still too early for a collective, institutionalized identity. Medical sociology was represented by several outstanding individual scholars who, through theoretical and historical writing, placed their stamp on the work of the next generation. Their contributions were close in pattern to the parent field but found in the study of medical problems a rich empirical base. The history of medical sociology in this important formative stage, because it is so much the product of a small group of outstanding individuals, can be told through their biographies. Leading this intellectual development were Lawrence J. Henderson and Bernhard J. Stern, each in a different way.

Henderson was a well-known physician-scientist who, attracted to sociology in midcareer during the 1920s, conceived a model of social systems theory that was one of the early sources of functionalism, the dominant sociological theory during the next thirty years. Stern, trained at Columbia by Ogburn in sociology and by Boas in anthropology, was a social historian of medicine who was a Marxist. Whereas Henderson built his theoretical model from the dyad, seen as the most fundamental type of human relationship, Stern studied society in sociopolitical terms, always working as a concerned intellectual in close touch with the social problems of his time. Henderson was committed to creating a social science with a rigor comparable to that of natural science, and he saw no proper place in such a science for sociopolitics. Indeed, in contrast to the activist, policyoriented Stern, Henderson epitomized the value-neutrality that many sociologists idealized as the model of all types of science.

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