Health & Illness

What do you understand by the concept of “ good health”? Say how this idea has been shaped in modern Western society.

In general, people do concern about their health. However, how much do they care about, when do they really notice they are healthy or not, and how much do they understand terms of health and good health, these questions have been taken account by some social scientists and they have defined some definitions about it to illustrate the idea of health. Generally, people would not think about their health until they have lost it. “

When you are in good health, you don’t think about it, you think of other things.” Said Leriche. When you ask people if they are healthy and why? Normally, if they think they are healthy, they say ‘ I am healthy, because I am happy, I sleep well, and feel strong…’ But there is more than one definitions of health in people’s experience and everyday life, for example, the idea of health will be different between different social classes of people and which were mainly defined by Parsons, Kelman, Baumann, Herzlich, Pill&Stott, Blaxter that will be explained later in my essay.

About the early research, Parsons argued health is a functional prerequisite for the maintenance of the social system, as it maximizes the capacity of the individual to carry out effectively the roles and activities he or she has been socialized for.

A Marxist approach, the most prevalent definition of health in western capitalist society is the functional definition of health, where good health is based on the effective performance of normal roles. Kelman argues that a definition of health markedly different from the prevalent one, but perhaps more congruent with the interest of the workforce, is an experiential definition of health. (Calnan M, 1987)

The value of health is defined differently according to different social class people: health is a physical issue that what working class and middle class women defined as, moreover, middle class women think mental aspect is also important to health because middle class women included happiness when they were defining the term health and working class women thus concern about unhappiness. Below table 1 is D’Houtard and Field did the research on people who were in different social classes in France in 1984 with the question of ‘ are you a healthy person? Yes, because…’

Type of explanationS.c I + IIS.c IV + V

‘Positive’ definitionNo.No.1Energetic/active/plenty of exercise832Feel fit323Feel well/alright324Eat the right thing525Correct weight116Have a positive outlook17Have a good life/marriage18Can work with anyone19Miscellaneous 4Total2512‘Negative’ definition10Never ill/never have anything wrong61311Don’t get many illness/rarely ill11212Don’t get serious illnesses2213Don’t get coughs and colds514Only get coughs and colds61615Have check-ups—nothing wrong116Rarely off work/never have time off work4117Only in bed once118Rarely go to doctor/hospital4419Recover quickly from minor illnesses420Don’t think/worry about illness421No recurrent illnesses222Miscellaneous4Total5438Tables 1, Definition of health, are you a healthy person? Yes, because…(Calnan M, 1987:30) From table 1, we can see that middle class women had more definitions about health than those working class women; and comparably, middle class women had more positive thinking of health (e.g. feel fit/feel alright) whereas those working class women were thinking about the negative definition to health (e.g. not ill/rarely go to doctor).

Thus, different social classes have different definitions to health. Therefore, this brings me to the next figure, which is also being asked by the researchers and was responded by those different social classes women with the question of ‘what is health and not being healthy?’

Type of explanationS.c I + IIS.c IV + V

Health is …No.No.1Getting through the day8152Never being ill103Feeling strong64Feeling fit725Being active836Being energetic617Plenty exercise48State of attitude of mind59Being able to cope with life’s crises/stresses510Not being overweight4Total5331Not being healthy is …No.No.1Below normal continually22Poor lifestyle83Lack of energy84Being ill/something wrong19225Having a serious illness256Having a chronic illness97Having an incurable illness28Being in bed/in hospital469Going to the doctor810Depressed/unhappy1011Not coping with life612Losing weight213Dependent on others2114Being unable to work11Total7453Figure 1, Definition of health: what is health and not being healthy? (Calnan M, 1987:32)

According to figure 1 above, we can draw a conclusion that working class women were more likely to say ‘not ill’ or ‘not going to the doctor’ which tends to be the negative aspect while middle class women more mention about ‘being active’ or ‘being energetic’ that tends to be positive view of the definition of health. So what health means to person with well-paid employment, a family and access to medical facilities is likely to be different from the meaning it has for someone who is unemployment and homeless. (Radley A, 1994)

According to those to tables have been given above, different people who are in different level in a society would have different thoughts to the definition of health, and this dues to the values of health to different levels of people. For the first part, having done a survey to ask women whether they think their health is the most important thing in their lives. And the result is most of them do not think that is true, and they think family and children are more important to concern in their lives.

The second situation is when the risk is a concern, whether or not women would ignore their health and to get more paid from a job. The results were differing according to social classes. For example, lots of women from middle class would choose a job with least risk and low pay because they thought the risk is overweight the benefit; but women form the working class would almost choose the most risk job with highest pay, which is because they think at least they go to work for money not for risk that means they would sooner have money than the risk.

From those what people thinking about what is health, scientists have given some meanings about it. Baumann concluded those responses in three types, they are: health means a general sense of well-being; the absence of symptoms of diseases; and the things that a person who is physically fit is able to do. And these relate to three aspects: feeling; symptom-orientation; and performance.

From Baumann’s point of view, health has many different categories. They are 1: Health as not ill—which means it is defined by absence of illness; 2: health as reserve—this means a person thinks the he/she has good health; 3: health as behaviour—which applied to others rather than oneself;

4: health as physical fitness and as vitality—almost among men and they think they feel fit due to they do sports; 5: health as psycho-social well-being—which in terms of a person’s mental health; 6: health as function—this may also due to a man that has ability or power to do manual work. Blaxter pointed that good health has combination of definitions and people define them in different stage and at different time.

The most significant research I think is the one from Herzlich. She defined health has three conceptions as being important; they are health-in-vacuum, reserve of health and equilibrium. This allows me to pick up the table 2 which fully explained the relationship and differences between those three concepts from Herzrich.

Health-in-vacuumReserve of healthEquilibriumBeingHavingDoingContentAbsence of positive contentRobustness and strengthResistance to attacksPhysical well-beingGood humourActivityGood relations with othersRelation to personImpersonal factAll or nothingPersonal characteristicMeasurable, variable and permanentSecondary awarenessPersonal normAll or nothingImmediate awareness

Relation to other forms———————–Basis of equilibriumBased on reserve of health Relation to illnessDestroy by illnessResistance to illnessAssimilation of disorders Table 2, the relationship and differences between three conceptions of health (Herzlich C, Graham D, 1973)

Here the health-in-vacuum is a fact, an impersonal condition, it is to say that a person is well-being in terms of not ill, however, if he/she is ill, this will be destroyed; the reserve of health means that the value of a person to think about the health, which, for example, people say I have got excellent health, I was born with excellent health.

And this can be changed during a person’s lifetime, to what means this kind of health can increase or decrease and allow personal control; the third, equilibrium, it is a kind of real health, because it is something there, for example, people says I am not feeling well and things are not going right, he/she would say his/her equilibrium is upset.

And not like reserve of health, there is no levels or degrees to equilibrium, and it is nothing or all. So we could draw a conclusion that health-in-vacuum is a fact, the reserve of health is a value, and equilibrium is also a value that people can choose to keep. And scientists said that “ people who are in perfect health, as you ought to be, well, I think you can see them now. But people who are really in equilibrium, they are very rare.” (Herzlich C, Graham D, 1973)

To sum up, people sometimes will neglect to think about their health until they have lost it. And normally in people’s mind, health is simply defined as feel alright or feel fit which is from the positive point of view, or not going to the doctor and not ill thus from the negative aspect.

However, the definition of health is far away compared with what people’s thinking. Herzrich pointed the most important aspect of defining what health is through three categories, which were health-in-vacuum, reserve the health, and equilibrium. Other scientist also gave a definition to the term of health, for instance, Kelman, Williams, Pill&Stott.

Word count: 1,841


1, Calnan M, 1987, Health and Illness: the lay perspective, London and New York: Tavistock

2, Herzlich C, Graham D, 1973, Health and Illness, A Social Psychological Analysis, London and New York: Academic

3, Radley A, 1994, Making Sense of Illness, the social psychology of health and disease, London: Sage