Junkfood Science: We all shall have a disease...or two or three

June 09, 2007

We all shall have a disease...or two or three

Over the past fifty years, how our culture has come to view health and illness has made a major shift. What was once considered normal human events and common human conditions — birth, aging, menopause, alcoholism and obesity — are now viewed as medical afflictions.

Peter Conrad, Ph.D., social science professor at Brandeis University in Waltham, MA, has written a new book, based on decades of research, exploring this phenomenon. The Medicalization of Society: On the Transformation of Human Conditions into Treatable Disorders looks at the medicalization of daily life and the growing numbers of new diagnoses that can now label all of us as diseased — everything from shortness, fatness, balding, aging, feeling anxious, male menopause, erectile dysfunction to attention deficit.

“As a sociologist, I am concerned with the pathologization of conditions which used to be considered the normal spectrum of human behavior; I am concerned with the growing aspects of life where medical definitions define normality,” Professor Conrad said in a Johns Hopkins media release. “We are on a trajectory toward turning all human differences into diseases or disorders and subjecting them to medical treatments.”

What is most troubling is how we got to this point and where it may lead us. According to Professor Conrad, medical professionals have been having a diminishing influence on disease diagnosis and treatments. “Instead, the pharmaceutical and biotechnical industries, insurance companies and HMOs, and the patient as consumer have become the major forces promoting medicalization.”

Disease promotion is everywhere and ubiquitous on television with direct-to-consumer drug advertising, for example. But the promotion of health and “wellness” has soared over recent decades and the public has embraced and internalized the feel-good agenda without questioning what is behind it.

Professor Conrad, who also co-authored Deviance and Medicalization: From Badness to Sickness, has written extensively on healthism, cautioning more than ten years ago that its promotion has succeeded in creating the popular view that wellness and the pursuit of health is a moral virtue, even apart from any actual health outcomes. As he wrote in Culture Medicine and Psychiatry in 1994:

[W]ellness seekers engage in a profoundly moral discourse around health promotion, constructing a moral world of goods, bads and shoulds...engaging in wellness activities, independent of results, becomes seen as a good in itself. Thus, even apart from any health outcomes, the pursuit of virtue and a moral life is fundamentally an aspect of the pursuit of wellness.

His new book is on my to read list.

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