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 treatable as a medical condition. Obesity, alcoholism, childhood hyperactivity and sexual abuse have all been defined as medical problems that are, as a result, increasingly referred to and treated by physicians.

In modern society, medicalization can be motivated by one of three cultural factors: new evidence or medical observations about mental or behavioral conditions; changing economic or social attitudes; or through the development of new medical technology, treatments, and medications.

Certain controversy exists around the over-medicalization of modern American culture, wherein some believe young parents are calling energetic children "attention deficit" and getting doctors to prescribe them prescription pills to help them calm down and focus, or the sudden fad of everyone being intolerant of gluten and needing to eat gluten-free.

A History of Medicalization

In the 1970s, Thomas Szasz, Peter Conrad, and Irving Zola pioneered the term medicalization to describe the phenomenon of treating mental disabilities that were self-evidently neither medical or biological. 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, calling medicalization a tool of an oppressive capitalist society bent on furthering social and economic inequality through disguising underlying causes of diseases as poison.

In the years that followed, medicalization essentially became a marketing buzzword for pharmaceutical companies to capitalize on the need of social groups to fix their "problems." Soon, these companies began marketing pills to solve sleeplessness then oversleeping, anxiety then a lack of focus, etc.


Even as recently as 2002, an editorial ran in the British Medical Journal warning fellow medical professionals of the dangers of continuing to market mental disorder or conditions as treatable. This meant that people were treating personal issues as diseases and pharma companies were capitalizing off offering band-aid solutions to non-medical issues.

The article states, "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." This means that 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.

It is important, then, as consumers and as patients, as doctors as well as scientists, that we all determine the mental conditions that are true to the human experience, even if uniquely different and those that should be treated through the medical breakthroughs of modern technology.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Crossman, Ashley. "Medicalization in Sociology." ThoughtCo, Aug. 31, 2017, Crossman, Ashley. (2017, August 31). Medicalization in Sociology. Retrieved from Crossman, Ashley. "Medicalization in Sociology." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 20, 2018).