Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Medicalisation And Secularization: The Changing Needs Of Populations?

     It is a defining characteristic of humanity that we need to find answers to the deeper questions in life. We see unusual behavior and look to others to understand. Previously, we looked to religion to provide the answers, seeking theological explanations and solutions to problems we couldn't solve on our own. Clearly, religion still plays this role for many people but in an Euro-American society where secularization plays a large role, demonstrating that many people are looking elsewhere for solutions for the big problems.

     Especially since the 1960's religion has been on a drastic decline in Britain along with many other Western nations. People have stopped going to church, baptizing their children, and labeling themselves as religious. In the 2010 Social Attitudes Survey, 43% of people said they had no religion (at increase from 31% in 1983). This is not to say that society has no need for religion, or indeed that Christianity does not hold serious social and political clout, however, secularism is an important process and demonstrates important characteristics about current social interactions.

     A second important process, though a more modern one, is that of medicalisation. This is the framing of social issues as medical problems. To illustrate this process it is instructive to look at the rise of behavioral problems such as Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) which have become commonplace in modern child development and education. What would have previously been looked at as a social issue, a overexcited child or a misbehaving student, has now been medicalised as a health disorder with its own language, medication and public understanding. It is also characterized by increased status for the medical profession and the knowledge they possess.

     So there is a correlation between secularisation, the shift away from religion as a big part of people's lives, and medicalisation, the placing of previously social problems into a medical context. This article does not go as far as definitively arguing that there is causality in the correlation. However, when looking at how people solve their problems it is an interesting thought that health has taken the place of religion in solving social issues; indeed that doctors have become priests, hospitals have become temples and medical training has become the occult knowledge. With the bio-political impact that pharmacology and doctors have over the lives of people, literally from birth to death, it is easy to see how it has come to replace religion in the eyes of an increasingly atheistic society. Doctors are now being asked to solve a wider and wider range of problems with 'patients' often being unsatisfied unless their issue is classified medically and treated in a pharmacological manner. It is important that we understand the mentalities of a population that may be turning towards the sciences and medicine as new methods of understanding themselves and solving the issues that impact upon their lives.


  1. A very interesting theory. I am a student doing an MA in Medical Humanities at the University of Leicester and I'm currently researching my dissertation. It will be titled something along the lines of 'Reflections on Psychopharmacology in Hard Science Fiction.' I'll be asking questions such as 'when does medical duty become social control?' and 'at what point does treating an illness become changing who a person is?'

    I was wondering if you had any recommendations for books/journal articles/news articles which would be of use? Again, very interesting theory!

  2. Thanks for the interest! I wrote this after a seminar I had at Sussex as part of a course in Global Disease and Bio-security. The main readings for this were by one of our lecturers called Stephan Elbe who is a big expert on securitisation and medicalisation theories.

    Not sure if that helps but your thesis sounds really cool, you should publish it when you're done so I can have a read!