The present paper reviews various theories in reference to health sociology. Discussion will centre around a brief definition of theory and sociology while exploring and comparing two of the seven main theoretical perspectives; functionalism and symbolic interactionism. This paper concludes by providing reasoning on the importance of contributing these two theories to the knowledge of health care practitioners. A theory allows us to make sense of the world by providing clarification of why things happen and how things work. Each theory is developed on a collection of different authors views although in the end they tend to share core values of a certain perspective or society (Germov, 2009). Theories are commonly the foundation for all health policies and reflect on the way health care providers deliver care, they allow health practitioners to enhance their knowledge on matters they are unsure of through qualitative research and encourage continuation of skill development in hope of achieving improved quality of care (Albert, Hodges, Kuper & Reeves, 2008).
Sociology is simply the study of human social life and encourages health care professionals to view everyday occurrences in different ways. It can be broken down into sociology in nursing, relating to an individual’s health care experience or sociology of nursing, referring more to the issues that affect the profession as a whole (Green & Earle, 2009). Functionalism also known as structural functionalism or consensus theory looks at society from a large-scale prospective and is an approach to sociology based on ideas by three key theorists; Ѐmily Durkheim (1858-1917), Talcott Parsons (1902-79) and Robert Merton’s (1910-2003). This theoretical perspective, which is popular in the USA, explores the required structures that make up a society and how each part contributes to maintaining social stability and equilibrium (Germov, 2009).
According to Van Krieken et al. (2013) the main ideas of the functionalist perspective may be summarised from a comparison drawn from biology, with the use of the human body as an example to explain how an organism works. It firstly examines the various relationships between the different parts of the body, such as the lungs, heart, liver and brain, and with this investigation it provides an understanding of how they operate together as a whole organism. By simply investigating these parts of the body in isolation of each other and without each organ working smoothly together the human body is unable to operate, the same is true for a society and all the structures working together trying to maintain social order (Van Krieken et al., 2013).
Along with Van Krieken et al. (2013) comparison with biology, Germov (2009) explains that functionalism centers on the assumption that a society is a system made from a bunch of connected structures, all of which have an integral function with certain needs that interrelate and depend on each other in order for survival of social stability and consensus to be maintained. According to Germov (2009) the functionalist study of health care has mainly been influenced by Parsons (1951) and regarded individual’s health as an essential condition of an unchanging and ordered society. His idea of illness came from behaviour’s and/or activities that interrupt social exceptions about what is normal and saw illness as a disruption to the usual function of society. He implemented the concept of the ‘sick role’ stressing the importance for the sick to seek expert help in order to recover and continue performing their social role (Germov, 2009).
Symbolic interactionism was compiled by the teachings of a key theorist George Herbert Mead (1863-1931) in the 20th century. He believed that this theory was established as a reaction against structuralist approaches such as structural functionalism and was the development of individuals and how people construct, interpret and assign meaning to their behaviours in order to decide how they act with others (Germov, 2009). Herbert Blumer (1900-87) continued Meads work and coined the term to describe this theory of society in 1937. Symbolic interactionism encompasses not only sociology but various components of psychology by concentrating on a small-scale view of society and focuses on a small-scale perspective of individual’s interactions and how this impacts a person’s image or identity of themselves (Germov, 2009).
According to Kneisl & Trigoboff (2009) symbolic interactionism can be explained by breaking the human process into three central ideas; it looks at how individual’s react depending on the meaning, it gives meaning to things based on our social interactions with people assigning different meanings, and it explains that our meanings given to something are not permanent and can be changed with experiences that occur throughout everyday life. Symbolic interactionism gives special importance that health and illness are perceived subjectively as socially formed features of an individual’s life that can change with time and vary within certain cultures (Germov, 2009). Labelling theory which is described by Germov (2009) as social institutions and health professions playing a role in defining what is deviant, uncovered the way that medicine could be utilised as an instrument in promoting conformity and help minimise the actions of difficult or abnormal social groups.
Symbolic interactionism has an emphasis on illness within a society and how it can be socially mirrored at any point in time by politics, culture and morality, therefor health care professionals may use this theory to gain opinions that are based on social and moral factors rather than just biological factors (Germov, 2009). Functionalism and symbolic interactionism are both theoretical paradigms that are applied in relation to the study of society’s structure. According to the structure-agency continuum in Germov (2009), both of these theories are placed at opposite ends, functionalism favouring the structure side of the debate while symbolic interactionism favouring the agency side. As discussed, the functionalist theory observes on a macro scale how society works together by the interacting and interlocking parts, it is based on a more objective scientific approach by focusing more on the organism working as a whole in order to provide social stability (Langhoff, 2002).
Unlike functionalism, symbolic interactionism is based more on an interpretive approach which is observed on a micro scale and focuses more on the individual’s reactions and actions when they attach meaning to the interlocking parts (Langhoff, 2002). In order for us to comprehend, explain and make predictions about the involvement of a society and human relationships we must first gain a strong understanding of sociology and its impacts towards nursing. Cox (as cited in Pinikahana, 2003), explained how sociology may help nurses with their primary role in caring for patients and discussed four ways of how sociology relates to nursing. Pinikahana (2003) explains the reasoning and justification for teaching sociology in order to increase the awareness of the individual’s psychological and social needs, and views sociology as a subject that facilitates the holistic care of the patient. Cooke (as cited in Green & Earle, 2009) explains sociology as an “emancipatory discipline”, meaning health professionals need to remain self-critical and question the expectations of the profession that have been long held.
Following the theory of functionalism within health care the ‘sick role’ relies heavily on the medical professional-patient relationship and should be able to rely on others to care for them in order to restoring their health, they are to comply with the recommended medical treatment and are not to be help personally responsible for their illness due to it being beyond ones control (Germov, 2009). With the use of symbolic interactionism theory in the health care system, it allows the practitioner to gain an understanding of the patient’s physical presentation along with their psychological needs (Germov, 2009). Adapting the use of qualitative research and theory based practices within the medical profession collectively increases the patient’s outcomes both mentally and physically by providing the best possible care using a holistic approach. If health practitioners are unaware of these various theoretical perspectives they may not be able to provide the best practice for the patient, therefore leaving the individual with a reduced ability to regain their health (Germov, 2009).
In conclusion the theoretical perspectives of functionalism and symbolic interactionism along with the other five theories; marxism, weberianism, feminism, contemporary modernism and post structuralism/post modernism are all important considerations that need to be taken into account when dealing with people in the medical profession. Functionalism relates more to the sociology of nursing and explores the structures that are involved in making a society and concentrate on the parts that interact together in order to make things work as a whole, the perfect example of this being the human body, without the awareness of this theory, social stability and consensus would not be achieved. Symbolic interactionism relates more towards sociology in nursing and takes into account the structures that meet the needs of society while it also considers individual’s social facts like the way people think and act, gaining an overall picture of the patients social and psychological needs.