Nursing Student
New Grad
Join to watch the full lesson now.

01.10 Social Effects on Health, Illness, and Disability

Show More


  1. Outline
    1. How does society impact health?
    2. Gender, social class, and race
    3. Sociological perspectives
    4. Conclusions
  2. How does society impact health?
    1. Health and disability are defined by society. There is no universal definition of either term. An easy way to understand this it to look at changing definitions over time. Before research came out about the health concerns of smoking it wasn’t considered unhealthy. Mental illness was considered a morality problem prior to the enlightenment period. Thus, health and disability are social constructs.
    2. Technological differences play a large part in determining health. Infectious diseases are problematic in many poor countries because they do not have the technology to combat them. While generally speaking as tech improves health improves this isn’t always the case. As an example, the U.S. is currently the world leader in obesity despite being the most advanced country.
    3. Social inequalities also play a large role in determining health. Life expectancy differences between poor and rich countries are on average a 20 year difference. Poor countries suffer from things like bad drinking water and poor sanitation. Rich countries on the other hand lead the world in rates of heart disease, cancer, and stroke. These are health problems that largely happen at old ages.
  3. Gender, social class, and race
    1. In general, women outlive men at all life stages. This is largely due to differences in aggressive and risk-taking behavior. Later in life, men are also more likely to be obese as they eat higher-calorie diets and do not feel pressures from society to remain relatively thin.
    2. When we talk about racial differences in health, we are largely talking about differences in social class. This is because African Americans are disproportionately likely to be lower in class relative to Caucasians in the U.S. For this reason, blacks have more issues with health concerns such as heart disease and high blood pressure. This is not due to a biological difference but rather a social one.
  4. Sociological perspectives
    1. Symbolic-interaction
      1. This perspective focuses on the social definitions surrounding health that impact behavior. People with diseases commonly have to deal with stigmas or social repercussions that have nothing to do with the biological reality of the disease. People with mental health concerns are good examples. Mental health has been considered a religious, moral, or neurological problems at various points throughout history. Therefore, what mattered was not so much the biological reality of the disease but the social meanings and understanding that were attached to it.
    2. Conflict
      1. This perspective highlights the financial interest that medical companies have in a capitalist system. Conflict theorists point out that the primary goal for medical companies and personal is not to maximize patient care but rather to maximize profits. The fact that pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, doctors, and other medical personnel have a direct financial interest in patient care is the root of the problem
  5. Conclusions
    1. Health and disability are social determined. This isn’t to say that biological realities are not important. Rather, definitions of health and disability will vary over time and form society to society.
    2. Social demographics have important health consequences. In general, women live longer than men, whites live longer than blacks, and uppper classes live longer than lower classes.
    3. Sociological perspectives help us understand the link between health and society.
      1. The symbolic interaction perspective highlights how social definitions and understandings impact definitions of health and related behaviors.
      2. The conflict perspective highlights how profit motives impact our health system in a capitalist system.

Video Transcript

Today we’re going to be talking about how society and health intersect. 


To start off, we will talk about how society impacts health. Health nor disability carries a universal definition. Health and disability are both heavily defined by the cultural context. Next we will talk about various social demographics and how they intersect with measures of health. Lastly, we will examine health through the lens of symbolic interaction and conflict to offer insights. We will conclude with key points and takeaways from today’s lesson.


To begin, what is considered healthy and what is considered disabled varies from one culture to the next. There is no universal definition of health. One of the easiest ways to recognize this is to look at life expectancy differences across human history. During the time of the roman empire, life expectancy was around 25 years old. If we take out infant mortalities life expectancy rises to the late 50’s. If someone lived into their 60s or 70s during this period there were likely looked at having lived a long, healthy ife. However, is someone only lives into their 60s today they are unlikely to be looked at as living a long, healthy life. Perhaps more pertinent than life expectancy, whether or not certain behaviors are considered healthy changes over time. Half a century ago, nobody really knew that smoking was unhealthy and treated it as such. Throughout the middle-half of the 20th century smoking was considered cool and hip. Today, viewing smoking as unhealthy is commonplace. Similarly, before the period of the enlightenment, disability was considered more of a moral failing rather than a biological one. It’s possible that at some point in the future if someone cannot run a marathon at the age of 80 they will be considered disabled and thus receive significant government assistance. The point is that health and disability are social constructs and thus are determined by society. They are not universal standards.


Technology also impacts health standards. Infectious diseases are widespread in many poor countries because those countries lack the technology to treat it. Generally speaking, as technology improves health standards improve. Yet this isn’t always the case. In the western word and the United States specifically, concerns surrounding obesity are now more prevalent than ever. This is a reflection of technological improvements as high calorie foods are now cheaper and more available than ever.


And then social inequalities also greatly impact health. It isn’t a surprise that the more resources a country, state, or even family has, the better their health and life chances. Overall, the rich have vastly better physical and mental health than the poor. As an example, as of 2015 according to the World Health Organization, life expectancy in many african countries was less than 60 years whereas in the richest parts of the world that # now pushes 80. In the United States alone a 10 year gap exists between the poor and rich in life expectancy. Poor countries are often characterized by unsafe drinking water, unsafe sanitation methods, and prevalent infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and influenza. Rich countries on the other hand, rarely have problems with infectious diseases. Common causes of death in rich countries include heart disease, cancer, and stroke which usually happen during old age. All told, social inequalities between and within countries have to be considered when we examine the relationship between society and health.


Although women trail men in most valued categories, health is not one of them. In developed countries such as the United States, boys and men are more likely to die at virtually every life stage relative to girls and women. This is largely due to differences in aggressive and risky behavior. Men are more likely to do things like ride motorcycles, get in fights, and be the victims of homicide. Later in life, men are also more likely to face health issues such as obesity and heart disease. While these differences likely have some biological roots, these outcomes are again largely driven socially. Men are more likely to eat a high-calorie diet and don’t feel as much pressure from society to remain thin during adulthood.


It comes as no surprise that health measures are almost always better for upper class individuals relative to lower class. In the United States, we can’t talk about social class health without discussing race. This is due to the fact that african americans are disproportionately likely to be found in lower classes relative to caucasians. Black people are more likely than whites to face health problems of heart disease and high blood pressure. This is not due to a biological differences between whites and blacks but rather social differences among the categories. People in lower classes have more problems with heart disease as they often cannot afford nor have access to healthier food options. Furthermore, life expectancy of the average white male is about 3 years longer than the average black male. 3 years doesn’t sound like too much but if you think about how many years of a difference this makes between entire populations and across generations the difference is much more staggering. Again, this difference is driven by average social class position, not innate biological diferences between whites and blacks.


Alright, let’s wrap things up. Health and disability are not universally consistent. Definitions vary across time and from culture to culture. Social demographics such as gender, race, and social class have important consequences for health outcomes. On average, women live longer than men due to differences in risk taking and aggression. All else equal, lower social classes and african americans have worse health outcomes relative to upper classes and whites in the U.S. Lastly, using sociological perspectives helps us understand the link between society and health. The symbolic interaction perspectives highlights how social definitions and understanding surrounding health impact behavior. The conflict perspective highlights how motives for profit in a capitalist society impact our medical system.


We love you guys! Go out and be your best self today! And as always, Happy Nursing!