The Word as Scalpel: A History of Medical Sociology

By Samuel W. Bloom | Go to book overview

1
The Origins
Medicine as Social Science,
Public Health, and Social Medicine

Medical sociology is an old conception but relatively young as a field of endeavor. 1 From early in the nineteenth century, one can trace research activities that are remarkably close, at least in style, to their modern counterparts in medical sociology. Until about seventy-five years ago, however, such studies were episodic, linked to major events like the struggle for political and social rights of the European middle class in the 1840s, the similar struggle of the English working class later in the nineteenth century, and the radical technological and social changes caused by the Civil War in the United States. These events typically heightened public feelings of social responsibility and, in the process, stimulated early variants of social science. Edwin Chadwick's Report on the Sanitary Conditions of the Laboring Population of Great Britain in 1842 is a good example. 2 Just as typically, however, at least with inquiry about health, the motive force of such movements was not sustained. It was not until almost 1930 that an unbroken development began in the sociology of medicine, and only after World War II were individuals identified as “medical sociologists. ”

Medical sociology, in its nineteenth-century origins, derived from three overlapping concepts: medicine as social science; social medicine; and the sociology of medicine. All three are concerned with explaining the linkage between social conditions and medical problems, the idea that human disease is always mediated and modified by social activities and the cultural environment. 3 “Medicine is a social science, ” wrote Rudolph Virchow in 1848. 4 Even earlier, French and German investigators used similar terms as they became concerned with the social problems of industrialization. The French social hygienists of the 1830s are one example, and, in Germany, another well-known physician, Salomon Neumann, studying the influence of poverty and occupation on the state of health, shared Virchow's view. 5

However, “social science” as Neumann and Virchow perceived it was quite different from what it is today. For them it was a partisan, utilitarian activity, identified with advocacy and reform. Although Virchow is now remembered as

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The Word as Scalpel: A History of Medical Sociology
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