Social-psychological and sociological models for the understanding of disease and health bring into focus influencing factors created by the social action of human beings. What are the social influences on health preservation, the development, and social stratification of disease? How do social inequality and social stratification influence health? What role do occupation and unemployment play? What social-demographic determinants are important in medicine? We offer you all this information in the following article – along with all the facts pertinent to exams.
foundation of sociology

Sociological influence on health and disease

Behavior models and psychological models bring the individual person to the fore to explain disease and health. Sociological models focus on the influence of social structures on health and disease. The structure of society, the economic system, and the organization of health assurance (e.g. the introduction of health insurance structures) all play an important role.

Norms and behavior deviating from the norm

Norms are a society’s systems of rules which relate to the behavior of the members of that society. Behavior that complies with the norms is reinforced and rewarded; behavior that deviates from the norms is sanctioned. Widely varying expectations relating to behavioral norms are put on the individual person by society. If the behavior that deviates from the norms (e.g. quitting a job) is punished, this can have a negative impact on a person’s physical and psychological state of health.

Socio-structural factors

Social classes

lots of peopleA social class is characterized by group of people having similar or equal circumstances, i.e. their living and working conditions are on the same level. Almost all members of society classify their fellow men into specific categories. This first assessment occurs on the basis of outer appearance, language, clothing, and occupation. Social classes behave hierarchically in relation to each other and enjoy different reputations within society. In Germany, many studies have shown that those from different social classes behave differently with respect to disease and health.

The concept of social classes is a keyword in sociology. Class-related terms and models are based on education, income, and occupational class. This social class index (or meritocratic triad) is seen as an important resource with respect to life chances.

  • Educational class: defined by the level of education completed
  • Income class: defined by income
  • Occupational class: defined by occupational prestige

Attributed and acquired status: origin and personal contribution

A person is given an attributed status on the basis of their origin. An acquired status describes the status which a person can acquire by their own performance, and by their own skill and effort.

The meritocratic principle says that positions and rewards should only be distributed on the basis of the performance of the individual person and not on the basis of their attributed status (e.g. their gender, origin, parental home, or ethnic affiliation).

Social (vertical) mobility

The openness of a society can be seen from the level of social mobility.

To what degree is it possible to influence one’s own social position using one’s own skill and effort under the prevailing circumstances?

The medieval estate-based society can be seen as an example of extremely low social mobility. There is also currently a decrease in social mobility in industrial countries, due to recession.

Social deprivation

Poverty, unemployment, homelessness, and belonging to a social fringe group can mean exclusion from society – social deprivation. Social deprivation has a negative impact on health independent of a person’s level of education and their occupation.

Important connections between status / class affiliation and health-related behavior

In lower social classes In higher social classes
Generally an instrumental attitude towards the body: “As long as everything works, I do not need to see a doctor.” The body has symbolic value; health is seen as a value in and of itself.
Higher tolerance of symptoms and more frequent non-compliance Better access to health-related information
Workers make less frequent use of cancer screening and have a higher risk of early disability as employees. Population groups with higher status more frequently experience allergic and atopic diseases.
People in socially weaker classes make less frequent use of prenatal care and screening for diseases. Anorexia nervosa is a disease of the middle and high classes.

Social class gradients and explanatory hypotheses

Social class gradients describe the reduced levels of, for example, obesity, alcohol and nicotine abuse, and also the prevalence of mental disorders, when it comes to the higher classes within a population. Two theories offer explanations for the origin of these social class gradients: the social causation hypothesis and the social drift hypothesis. The social causation hypothesis has received a greater degree of proof than the drift hypothesis. The latter could primarily be observed in the area of mental disorders, especially in schizophrenic people.

The social causation hypothesis (cause hypothesis)

The cause of the unequal distribution of health and disease is greater exposure to factors that endanger health (higher environmental pollution, worse working conditions,…), and risk behavior (nutrition, substance abuse, movement behavior,… ), which is accompanied by affiliation to the respective social class.

The social drift hypothesis (selection hypothesis)

The social drift hypothesis argues from the opposite direction. It says that the unequal distribution of health and disease exists because disease forces social relegation or does not allow social advancement. This social drifting away is thus considered a consequence of a disease.

Revision tip: both hypotheses often come up in preliminary examinations!

Occupation and disease

In the long term, high workloads have a negative influence on health. Workers are more often affected by physically hard labor and shift work, which foster physical diseases. Doctors, for example, are exposed to very high psychological loads, in terms of high responsibility, a high level of time pressure, high expectations from many sides (e.g. from patients, relatives, colleagues, family,…)

A person’s subjective impression of job insecurity is a stress factor!

Two models have been developed concerning the influence of stress in professional life. They describe the connection between stress factors in professional life and the risk of cardiovascular diseases.

The job demand-control model

A person’s workload can be described in the demand-control model in terms of two dimensions:

  • The amount and character of the demand
  • The controllability of the tasks
  • A new third dimension: social support

Strong social support can serve as a stress buffer and compensate high workloads.

High amounts of demand + low controllability = high workload (example: assembly line work)

Model of occupational gratification crises

As the name suggests, the model of occupational gratification crises brings into focus the relationship between occupational exertion and earned rewards (e.g. payment, social recognition). Social support and attitude (goals in life, psychological stability, etc.) are buffers.

High personal commitment + low gratification = high workload (example: single mothers)

Ecological factors and health

Social Work situation, social class, family relations, housing situation, social network
Cultural The cultural understanding of health and disease play an important role, which has to be taken into consideration when dealing with foreign patients! Symbolism, religion, and moral concepts have a great influence on the understanding of health and disease, and their progress.
Natural Biological, chemical, and physical circumstances are basic influencing factors on health and disease, especially if diseases accumulate following a long period of latency (e.g. radioactivity, chemical poisoning).
Technical Risks and injuries, which result from technical devices, e.g. car accidents, electric smog. On the other hand, many technical achievements impact the progress of disease (e.g. modern medical devices).

Economic factors and health

people in subwayThe economic and financial situation of a country has a great impact on the health of an individual. The structure of the health system is also very important: statutory or private? While every person in Germany has to have health insurance, a lot of people in lower social classes have no access to medical care in the USA, for example. However, the tendency for people in higher social classes to receive better medical care is also present in Germany (private vs. statutory health insurance patients). The enormous impact of economic factors on health can be seen in terms of life expectancy as seen when comparing highly-industrialized countries and threshold countries.

Average life expectancy for men 2005 – 2010:

  • Germany: 77 years
  • Central Africa: 45 years

Social demography in medicine

Demography: The science of population combines elements from sociology, geography, medicine, and economics and it examines the life, growth, and decay of human populations.

Generative behavior and its determinants

These are some terms you should memorize:

  • Fertility: the number of live births, with respect to women
  • Birth rate: the number of live births in a given period of time divided by the average population in the given period of time
  • Fertility rate: the number of live births per 1,000 women of a certain age interval at a given point in time
  • Nuptiality: marriage and divorce behavior within a population
  • Mortality: part of deaths in the population
  • m (death rate): the proportion of deaths in a given period of time divided by the average population in the given period of time
  • Perinatal mortality: the number of deaths between the 28th week of pregnancy and the first week of life per 1,000 live and still births
  • Lethality: a measurement of the deadliness of a given disease
  • L (lethality rate): the number of people who have died in a given period of time divided by the number of sick people in a given period of time
  • Gender proportion: this describes the numerical relationship of the male population to the female population
  • Share of the Elderly / Old-Age Dependency Ratio: the number of people over 60 years per 1,000 persons in the age bracket 15-59
  • DALY: Disease-adjusted Life Years: this concept aims to measure the importance of diseases on a society. The DALY-measure describes the length of time in years spent in ill-health or which is lost due to premature death.

Demographic aging

Population pyramids illustrate all age groups within a given population at a given time, in graphic form. Note the following when it comes to interpretation of a population pyramid:

  • left: male, right: female
  • vertical axis: people’s age in years
  • horizontal axis: the actual number of people per age group (mostly in thousands)
  • ‘ bulges’: wars, natural disasters, changes to family policy

The ideal basic forms are presented in the following graphic:

structure of age


  1. a linear or classic pyramid shape (isosceles triangular shape)
  2. a widened or modified pyramid shape (pagoda shape)
  3. a beehive shape
  4. a bell shape
  5. an onion or urn (exaggerated onion)-shape
  6. a Christmas tree or droplet shape

Theory of demographic shift

people on streetDuring nation-wide industrialization, shifts in the generative structure of the population occur. Although this theory originates from the 1920s it still influences epidemiological thinking. The five stages describe the transformation of aspiring societies: initially, high birth and death rates dominate. In the course of industrialization and modernization, the birth rates stagnate, the population shrinks, and life expectancy increases. Germany and most other industrial countries are at stage five.

The five phases of demographic transformation

  1. Pre-transformative stage
High birth rates, high death rates, slight growth with a high ‘population turnover’
  1. Early-transformative stage
Slow decrease in death rates, continuing high birth rates, the population grows
  1. Mid-transformative stage
Death rates decrease further, birth rates slowly decrease, population growth reaches its peak
  1. Late-transformative stage
Birth rates decrease further, population growth also decreases
  1. Post-transformative stage
Birth and death rates decrease further, and population growth is roughly constant

Changes in the disease spectrum: epidemiological transition

The epidemiological transition describes the changes in the frequency of diseases and the causes of death. In modern societies chronic-degenerative diseases now dominate, rather than infectious diseases.

This has (had) the following consequences for medical practice:

In the main, medical treatment no longer aims to cure the patient, but rather to preserve quality of life. This entails implementing rehabilitative measures rather than curative practice.  Demographic aging impacts both health and social politics. One of the goals is compression of morbidity, i.e. seeking to ‘compress’ diseases and disabilities into the shortest possible period immediately before death. Thus, good health should be preserved during old age in order to keep the enormous costs for chronic diseases at the lowest possible level.

Society in change: the law of contraction and the consequences for medicine

The Law of Contraction describes the historical tendency towards smaller and smaller families, with the consequence that solidarity between individuals only relates to smaller and smaller groups of people.

This sociological thesis was developed in the context of a background where the state is taking over more and more tasks relating to social security, thereby taking over the function of the family nucleus. Certain changes can indeed be explained by the law of contraction, however in most cases the nuclear family still forms the most important social and financial network.

Yet, it is an undeniable fact that the number of one and two-person households is continuously increasing in Germany, and very few multi-generational households now exist. Furthermore, in the main, both partners within a family work. One consequence for the health system is the changing way that things are being organized for sick and elderly people. There is an increasing need for hospital beds, nursing and retirement homes, and provision of childcare.

Popular exam topics concerning medical sociology

The answers can be found below the references.

1. A patient who suffers from symptoms of severe stress comes to your practice. In your social case history you specifically ask for his occupational background. He relates that he has to deal with constantly high levels of time pressure at work and that he has very little room for recreation. Which of the following models best describes the development of the symptoms which result from this situation of psychosocial strain?

  1. The job demand-control model
  2. The model of occupational gratification crises
  3. The model of precarious occupation
  4. The model of relative deprivation
  5. The model of the process of social comparison

2. Epidemiological transition is…

  1. …the transition of a pandemic to an epidemic
  2. …the change in population structure dependent on social vertical mobility
  3. …the change in the way people within an entire population relate to health at a certain phase in the development of a society
  4. …the changes in a pathogen during the process of the spread of an infectious disease
  5. …the trans-continental spread of epidemics
Lecturio Medical Courses


M. Schön (2007): GK1 Medizinische Psychologie und Soziologie. Springer Verlag.

K. Buser, T. Schneller, K. Wildgrube (2007): Kurzlehrbuch Medizinische Psychologie und Medizinische Soziologie. Elsevier Verlag.

S. Rothgangel (2010): Kurzlehrbuch Medizinische Psychologie und Soziologie. Thieme Verlag.

Altersstruktur der Bevölkerung in Deutschland via Demografieportal

Correct answers: 1A, 2C

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