Disease is a social construction as much as a scientific diagnosis
Published: Sunday, September 22, 2013
Updated: Sunday, September 22, 2013 22:09
When asked “what is a disease?” One might answer with: a set of related symptoms that are objectively established. Such examples one would say are HIV, arthritis, and even the flu. The concept of having a disease is synonymous in society as having a “sickness”, being “unhealthy”, and being “imperfect.” Disease in society has a negative connotation.
But what if I told you diseases are socially constructed, that diseases are established based on our personal opinions, and that a disease in the United States that is seen as incapacitating, may be considered a mark of royalty half way across the globe?
Take, for example, breast size.
The article “The social construction of disease”, by Dr. Kathryn Ratcliff, a Sociology professor at the University of Connecticut, states that in the early 1980s the American Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons (ASPRS) established that having small breasts was a disease. They named this disease micromastia.
Even though having micromastia had no physical health risk to the individual, thousands of Americans were diagnosed with the disease.
By establishing small breasts as a disease, society viewed this “ailment” as an imperfection and looked down upon this physical trait. Many with the disease thus desired breast-enlarging treatment provided by ASPRS, in order to be cured.
However, in Brazil, having large breasts is actually looked down upon, as it represents a sign of African heritage and lower class status. Rose Weitz states in her book “Social Construction”, that breast reduction surgery is a common gift to many young girls entering adulthood in Brazil.
These two polar examples of the perceptions of breast size illustrate the social and subjective construction of diseases.
Some diseases are even introduced to society by powerful pharmaceutical companies for profit.
In the late 1980’s, synthetic human growth hormone (HGH) was established to replace cadaver harvested human growth hormone, which had the risk of containing deadly viruses.
HGH was intended and approved by the FDA for individuals who were diagnosed with pituitary dwarfism; it was proven that by giving pituitary dwarfs HGH their symptoms would diminish.
However, the article “Short Kids, Tall Profits,” by Barry Werth, states that in the United States there were only about 20,000 patients diagnosed with pituitary dwarfism. This meant a small market for Genentech Inc, the distributors of HGH.
However, once the FDA approves a drug, physicians are allowed to prescribe the drug for any purpose.
Thus Genentech began pushing physicians to prescribe the drug to its largest market, short children who were not hormone deficient.
Genentech even established a non-profit foundation, the Human Growth Foundation, as a front to raise awareness about being “too short.”
Genentech aimed to provide HGH to the lowest 3% percent of growth curve, and by doing so the company’s profits were estimated to increase from $157 million to almost $10 billion dollars.
There was no research to suggest that providing HGH to healthy, but short children was beneficial, yet Genentech socially introduced a disease for the sake of profit.
These children were healthy, and by deeming their short stature as a disease, they allowed society to characterize these children as abnormal and unhealthy.
The negative social stigma surrounding the disease is created, making the diagnosed self-conscious and ready for a cure, even if there are no physical health risks.