The Symbolic Interactionist Perspective
Lets begin, then, by examining how culture influences health and illness. This takes us to the heart of the symbolic interactionist perspective.
The Role of Culture in Defining Health and Illness
Suppose that one morning you look in the mirror and see strange blotches covering your face and chest. Hoping against hope that it is not serious, you rush to a doctor. If the doctor said that you had "dyschromic spirochetosis," your fears would be confirmed.
Consider mental "illness" and mental "health." People arent automatically "crazy" because they do certain things. Rather, they are defined as "crazy" or "normal" according to cultural guidelines. If an American talks aloud to spirits that no one else can see, and takes direction from them, he or she is likely to be defined as insaneand, for everyones good, locked up. In some tribal societies, in contrast, someone who talks to invisible spirits might be honored for being in close contact with the spiritual worldand, for everyones good, be declared a shaman, or spiritual intermediary, who would then diagnose and treat medical problems.
"Sickness" and "health," then, are not absolutes, as we might suppose. Rather, they are matters of definition. Around the world, each culture provides guidelines that its people use to determine whether they are "healthy" or "sick." As discussed in the Cultural Diversity box, those guidelines also tell you what your illness is. This is another example of how the social construction of reality plays a vital role in our lives.Box 19.1: Around the World
"You Dont Know What Empacho Is? What Kind of a Doctor Are You?"
The Components of Health
Back in 1941, international "health experts" identified three components of health: physical, mental, and social (World Health Organization 1946). They missed the focus of our previous chapter, however, and I have added a spiritual component to Figure 19.1. Even the dimensions of health, then, are subject to debate.
If we were to agree on the components of health, we would still be left with the question of what makes someone physically, mentally, socially, or spiritually "healthy." Again, as symbolic interactionists stress, these are not objective matters but, rather, matters whose definitions vary from culture to culture. In a pluralistic society, they even differ from one group to another.
As with religion in the previous chapter, then, the concern of sociologists is not to define "true" health or "true" illness. Instead, it is to analyze the effects that peoples ideas of health and illness have on their lives, and even the ways in which people determine that they are sick.