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Sociologists have long been interested in investigating and explaining issues in health and social care. Today, evidence based research is used extensively to inform both policy and practice in health and social care and sociologists have continued to inform this process.
For my research project I have decided to look at the issue of teenage pregnancy. The whole area of teenage pregnancy has been clearly identified as a policy issue by the government, who has sought to reduce the rates. Teenage pregnancy has been identified as a policy issue because it has been defined as restricting the health of young women and making a big impact on their life changes in both health and education. The UK has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Europe and is second outside of the USA for its high rate.
Sociologists research health and illness from a social point of view. How
health is defined and responded to is influenced by our personal and cultural viewpoints. The aim of sociologists is to look at each of the complex social influences that impact health issues so that our understanding can be improved. Sociological research can be influential in policy matters and responses. Sociological research has been influential in identifying the need for working with young women on empowerment issues rather than just giving out information to everyone (Rooney 2003). Marxist and feminist sociologists have pointed out that teenage pregnancy is not a health problem, but it has been defined as one because of the cost to the country of maintaining young single families.
Sociologists have also been influential in identifying the links between
professional power and health care, illustrating that for young women there is not equality to abortion facilities etc (Rooney 2003). Other research has shown that there is a link between social class and access to full control over sexual health issues. Private abortions are more easily accessible and can provide terminations in the earlier stages of pregnancy. However, the NHS has a much longer waiting list and a longer referral system that disadvantages working class women, which therefore leads to later and more problematic terminations.
Looking at gender and health from a sociological viewpoint, feminists have
long argued that gender is a form of social stratification in health that
works to the disadvantage of women (Oakley 1999). The question is raised
as to why women do not have full control over their sexuality and sexual health.
Sociologists differ in the way that they approach health and illness issues. There are three main ways used to analyse health, Social Positivist, Interactionist, and Structuralist.
Social Positivists build on the biomedical approach. It is argued that it is individualist in its application and can be victim blaming (Graham 1999). It looks at lifestyle and can include analysing individual social behaviour. Within this perspective, sexual behaviour can be seen to be under the direct control of the individuals concerned. People can choose whether or not to have sex. Within this approach all that is needed to change the situation in teenage pregnancy is for health educators to give information to people so that they can make the right choices. Cultural influences are also looked at by Social Positivists.
They arise from shared norms and values existing within a community. People within these communities are influenced in their health choices by the cultural values of the majority. Research in sexual health indicates that working class girls are more likely to have their first sexual experiences at a younger age than middle class girls. So working class culture has influenced their health decisions. Social Positivists tend to take a negative definition of health.
In contrast to the Social Positivist approach, the Interactionist perspective is concerned to not look at the external influences affecting health, but rather the interaction between these events and interpretative processes. We construct an understanding of ourselves out of the experiences we have of others. As Blumer (1969) puts it, we are ‘meaning givers’.
Looking at health presents some interesting questions. Attention is placed on the processes by which people come to define themselves as healthy or unhealthy. This could be argued that for the area of teenage pregnancy, the young mothers themselves may not define themselves to be unhealthy, but are defined as such by the societal response to the issue. Some research indicates that in itself teenage pregnancy is not a health issue but a social issue. Labelling can then be seen as a power issue. For the Interactionist, health can be defined as both positive and negative, and it is much more concerned with subjective meanings.
Within a structural perspective, health and illness does not strike people randomly. It is structured within countries with creation groups consistently coming out better than others no matter what measure of health is taken. Structuralists look at what causes these patterns and will locate the explanation within the way society as a whole is organised.
The most influential accounts of structuralism come from Marxism and Feminism. In relation to my topic area, feminists have long argued that patriarchal society is
structured in such a way so as to not give women full control over their sexuality. ‘It is argued that full control over ones reproductive health is a human right and denied by patriarchal society to keep women in a place of subordination’ (Greer 2002).
Structural theory raises important issues about dominant understandings of health, the role of doctors in society and the impact of the profit motive in standards of health care. They are now interested in the origins of inequality and how they change over time. Feminists such as Laws (1985), Pollock (1985), and Greer (2002), have drawn the attention to the way in which women’s sexuality has been subjected to patriarchal control.
The question of reproductive rights is an important issue in health and social care. For women control over their reproductive health is essential. For equality of opportunity to become reality women have to have access to safe and effective birth control. This will allow them to make choices over their fertility.