Effects of Power

Although the concept of power underlies the sociological perspective, sociologists don’t necessarily emphasize power in their research and writing. For example, some sociologists have researched unhealthy eating patterns among poor people without exploring how a lack of power may force individuals to work two jobs and leave them without enough time to prepare healthy meals.

Those sociologists, on the other hand, who focus on the sources, nature, and consequences of power relationships can be said to use a critical approach. Critical sociologists recognize that, regardless of how power is measured, men typically have more power than do women, adults more power than children, whites more power than African Americans, heterosexuals more power than those who are not heterosexual, and so on. Critical sociologists who study health, illness, and health care have raised issues such as how differing levels of power affects individuals’ access to health care and healthy living conditions.

Critical sociologists also emphasize how social institutions and popular beliefs can reflect or reinforce the existing distribution of power. For example, many researchers who study the U.S. health care system have looked simply for ways to improve access to care within that system such as by providing subsidies to doctors who practice in low-income neighborhoods. Those who use a critical approach have asked instead whether we could provide better care to more people if we changed the basic structure of the system such as by removing the profit motive from health care to reduce the costs of care for everyone.

Similarly, critical sociologists have drawn attention to how doctors’ power enables them to shape our ideas about health, illness, and health care. Most basically, these sociologists have questioned the very terms health, illness, and disability and have explored how these terms can reflect social values as well as physical characteristics.

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