Medicalization in Sociology

Treating Human Experiences as Medical Conditions

Medicalization is a social process through which a human experience or condition is culturally defined as pathological and therefore treatable as a medical condition. Obesity, alcoholism, drug and sex addition, childhood hyperactivity, and sexual abuse have all been defined as medical problems that are, as a result, increasingly referred to and treated by physicians.

Historical Overview

In the 1970s, Thomas Szasz, Peter Conrad, and Irving Zola pioneered the term medicalization to describe the phenomenon of using pharmaceuticals to treat mental disabilities that were self-evidently neither medical nor biological in nature. These sociologists believed medicalization was an attempt by higher governing powers to further intervene in the lives of average citizens.

Marxists like Vicente Navarro took this concept one step further. He and his colleagues believed medicalization to be a tool of an oppressive capitalist society bent on furthering social and economic inequality by disguising the underlying causes of diseases as some kind of poison that could be chemically counteracted.

But you don't have to be a Marxist to see the possible economic motivations behind medicalization. In the years that followed, medicalization essentially became a marketing buzzword that allowed pharmaceutical companies to capitalize on the belief that social problems could be fixed with medication. Today, there's a drug for just about everything that ails you. Can't sleep? There's a pill for that. Oops, now you sleep too much? Here you go—another pill. Anxious and restless? Pop another pill. Now you're too groggy during the day? Well, your doctor can prescribe a fix for that.

Disease-Mongering

The problem, it seems, is that most of these medications don't actually cure anything. They just mask the symptoms. As recently as 2002, an editorial ran in the British Medical Journal warning fellow medical professionals of disease-mongering, or selling sickness to perfectly healthy people. Even for those who are actually sick, there is still a great danger in marketing mental disorders or conditions as treatable:

"Inappropriate medicalization carries the dangers of the unnecessary labeling, poor treatment decisions, iatrogenic illness, and economic waste, as well as the opportunity costs that result when resources are diverted away from treating or preventing more serious disease."

At the expense of societal progress, especially in establishing healthy mental routines and understandings of conditions, we are awarded temporary solutions to lasting personal issues.

The Pros

Certainly, this is a controversial topic. On the one hand, medicine is not a static practice and the science is always changing. Hundreds of years ago, for example, we didn't know that many diseases were caused by germs and not "bad air." In modern society, medicalization can be motivated by a number of factors, including new evidence or medical observations about mental or behavioral conditions, as well as the development of new medical technologies, treatments, and medications. Society, too, plays a role. How detrimental would it be for alcoholics, for instance, if we still believed their addictions are moral failings, rather than a complicated confluence of various psychological and biological factors?

The Cons

Then again, opponents point out that oftentimes medicating is not curing the ailment, just masking the underlying causes. And, in some cases, medicalization is actually addressing a problem that doesn't exist. Are our young children really suffering from hyperactivity or "attention deficit disorder" or are they just, well, children

And what about the current gluten-free trend? The science tells us that true gluten intolerance, known as celiac disease, is actually very rare, affecting only about 1 percent of the population. But there is a huge market in gluten-free foods and supplements geared not just to those who have actually been diagnosed with a disease but also to people who self-diagnose—and whose behavior might actually be more detrimental to their health since many items high in gluten contain essential nutrients.

It is important, then, as consumers and as patients, as doctors as well as scientists, that we all work to determine, without prejudice, the mental conditions that are true to the human experience and those that should be treated through the medical breakthroughs of modern technology.