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Compare and contrast differing sociological perspectives of health and illness.

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Differing sociological perspectives on health and illness are provided by the functionalism and the conflict perspectives. Functionalism tends to treat sickness as a form of deviance that needs to be controlled. The conflict perspective argues that health and illness are strongly related to social, political, and economic inequality.

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There are many different sociological perspectives on health and illness. In this particular discussion, however, we will concern ourselves with two of them, the functionalist and conflict approaches.

Functionalism is a school of sociology that looks upon society as a highly complex organism in which all the various parts fit together to form an integrated whole. Applying questions relating to health and illness to this model, it becomes readily apparent that illness represents a threat to the overall integrity of society. This is because, when people get sick, it is invariably the case that they are no longer able to fulfill their social roles.

One of the foremost sociologists of the functionalist school, Talcott Parsons, argued that being ill meant involved taking on the role of "sanctioned deviance." In other words, the individual patient is no longer a productive member of society and is therefore permitted to diverge from accepted social standards.

That being the case, this particular form of deviance needs to be policed like all others. In relation to crime, the ultimate form of deviance, such policing is carried out by the agents of law enforcement. With sickness, however, such a role is taken on by members of the medical profession.

The functionalist perspective is based upon liberal individualism and therefore stresses the obligations that each individual has to get better, which involves, among other things, cooperating fully with relevant medical professionals.

In stark contrast to functionalism, the conflict perspective in sociology emphasizes the inherently fractured nature of society. Far from the structures of society conducing to unity, as the functionalist approach argues, they generate considerable social, economic, and political division.

A classic example of a conflict perspective is Marxism, which emphasizes conflict between social classes, namely the bourgeoisie and the proletariat—respectively, those who own the means of production in capitalist society and the working classes.

In relation to health and illness, Marxists, like other sociologists who hold to the conflict perspective, argue that they are largely the by-products of inequalities between social classes, in particular of inequalities in the provision of health care.

As we saw earlier in this discussion, functionalists place considerable emphasis on the individual and the vitally important role he or she has to play in improving their health. With conflict theorists, on the other hand, the focus is on the social environment and the part it plays in the health and wellbeing of the people who live in it.

As society is largely responsible for the health or sickness of its members, then these issues can only really be dealt with at the societal level, through the provision of healthcare by the state, for example.

But this in itself can only really be done once the various contradictions in society have been removed by some kind of revolutionary change. Conflict theorists differ as to precisely what such change would entail, but at the very least, it would involve a fundamental realignment of power in any given society.

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