Twelve Favourite Living Medical Sociologists

I have yielded to the temptation to identify ‘12 favourite living medical sociologists’ for two reasons. First, it allows me to celebrate the work of colleagues I admire; and second, it will hopefully provoke a continuing debate about who does what, as well as what matters, in our volatile worlds of sociology and financial capitalism. Of course a dozen is too few (athough I mention a few more as I move down my list). It also carries risks: I do not for a moment want to upset or irritate those I have not included. Partly for this reason I have omitted London-based friends and colleagues with which my own career has been entangled, with one exception. I have been fortunate. My four immediate colleagues – David Blane, Ray Fitzpatrick, Paul Higgs and Fiona Stevenson – have each made a significant impact; and there are many others I hold in high regard. So ‘local’ luminaries like Mike Bury and David Armstrong miss out, as do candidates from the next London cohort, like Judy Green for example. I must add too that ‘favourite’ does not mean best, and that had my intellectual journey been different, so would my list. But enough of these preliminaries: here goes. As usual with my lists, names come in no particular order.

To my mind Mick Bloor is one of the best medical sociologists around (and I am using the word ‘best’ here with cool deliberation). A craftsman, he seems to possess a complete tool-kit of skills, slipping easily from theoretical or conceptual contributions to empirical enquiry, and from quantitative to qualitative and ethnographic research. Whether he is mining Berkeley’s philosophy to illuminate medical casts of mind, investigating the dialectics of street sex work and drug use, reviewing the literature on HIV or, latterly, exposing lifestyles, health risks and hazards at sea, his work shows sensitivity and judgement. Apprentices to professional medical sociology need look no further for their role model.

Kathy Charmaz is my second inclusion. She helped anchor the sociology of chronic illness in the 1980s and cemented it thereafter. But like most on my list she had other strings to her bow. Plus, sometimes, people’s commitment, diligence, charm and goodwill draw in others, and Kathy is a case in point. To complement her empirical studies she re-interpreted and enhanced Glasser and Straus’ ‘grounded theory’, not only by deploying it paradigmatically but by elucidating its underlying precepts and relaying and demonstrating its potential (as Rose Barbour has done for ‘focus groups’). As an editor I have to add that grounded theory is more often abused by researchers (‘how shall I fill in the methods bit: I know, I’ll call it grounded theory’) than it is used to positive effect; READ CHARMAZ!

Johannes Seigrist’s may be an unexpected name to read here. I must confess to liking him enormously and to gratitude for his encouragement via ESHMS to our journal, ‘Social Theory and Health’; but that is beside the point. Nor am I even put off by the Marmot-like socio-epidemiological nature of his work! In my books his Mertonian or middle-range ‘effort-reward imbalance’ theory is a core input into our understanding of what it is that mediates macro-social change and the micro-tragedies of lives interrupted by suffering’s circumspections. The deleterious and life-sapping impact of a sense of incongruence between efforts put in and recognition bites. In other words, I would personally welcome more research in this mould, studies that make more credible, even to non-sociologists, why and how it is that the lives of some are predictably encumbered and curtailed.

George Brown is my exception, a London-based sociologist with whom my career is irrevocably bound up. He was my Ph.D supervisor, and it is not his fault that it took me over 10 years to submit (times were simpler then, and I did other things during the lost decade). For me, ‘Social Origins of Depression’ (and I’m not forgetting Tyrril Harris here) remains a seminal work. His 1973 ‘Sociology’ paper on class and depression is a rare example of the elucidation of the mechanisms that link class and disease. But there was and is more to George than this. Rather like John Goldthorpe, I gather, every conversation is a challenge to up your game. His early work with John Wing on institutionalization may be by-passed now, and his occasional excursions into the mainstream, like his assault on grounded theory, also in ‘Sociology’, may be overlooked; but there is much to learn from the full range of his publications. As an apprentice postgraduate, having read his critique of grounded theory, I urged him to venture more often into the mainstream, but who was I to advise?

I admit to being peeved when Bruce Link heads towards stigma post-Goffman and takes the easy options of (a) confining himself to American sources, and (b) thinking it’s only about mental health. I guess US insularity apes the Victorian, English notion of centres of universes. But the reach of his work is extensive, as American colleagues know only too well. As well as directing us to the social structural substrates of stigma attribution, he early on authored a text on ‘fundamental causes’ that challenged the pygmies in sociology to take health inequalities seriously. He continues to combine theoretical perspicuity and empirical research.

Like me (and Mary Boulton), Ann Oakley did her Ph.D with George Brown. Her original study, reported in ‘The Captured Womb’, was a ground-breaker: she lent specific empirical substance to John Stuart Mill’s treatise on the subjugation of women (and J.S.Mills’ dad lived in my village of Mickleham, let me add). My first use of Habermas’ work – in 1987 – built on Ann’s research on pregnancy and childbirth. This was the beginning. It was her platform for a corpus of theory and research that insisted on medical sociology’s inclusion of (a) female practitioners, and (b) the substantive recognition of the marginalization of women and their health status. Sociologically and epidemiologically, this body of work was pioneering. As for her subsequent fiction, (auto-)biographical output and her feminist studies, these are for another forum.

Hilary Graham has always delivered. Along with many others, as a teacher I regularly cite her early paper on class, gender and smoking: what wonder women, diminished and starved of resources and hope and alone responsible for the welfare of their offspring smoke to get through the day? (I deploy Sally McIntyre’s noted study of GP’s stereotypes of pregnant women similarly). Hilary’s later book, ‘Unequal Lives’, epitomizes what professional medical sociology might and should put on the table (I would put Sara Arber into this category, especially on ageing). I have my qualms as an advocate of acknowledging the play of social structures on health and longevity, but Hilary’s text is an exquisite summary of the extant research literature.

Deborah Lupton has ventured onto new ground. I am no Foucauldian, but I can spot adventure when I see it (in part courtesy of London-based Durkheimian/Foucauldian consociates). Deborah has moved from pioneering exegeses on technologies of the self, governmentality and ‘risk’ in relation to health; to a sociological exploration of ‘fatness’; to exploring the parameters of the ‘digital’. She has been obdurately independent-minded and innovative. While I remain an apprentice to all things virtual, I am on a learning curve. A star on Twitter (@DALupton), I suspect she is pointing to a future beyond my remit and present capability. Colleagues, in my view, will have pick up this ball and either run with or come to terms with it. A Norwegian sociologist and friend, Aksel Tjora, regularly confirms this.

I recall having a coffee with Peter Conrad in Melbourne early one morning before attending a session at the annual ISA conference. He reeled off any number of prospective authors, referees and reviewers for ‘Social Theory and Health’ (which kicked off in 2003). People and things tend to revolve around Peter. His early work, with John Schneider, was on epilepsy, hence our knowledge of each other’s research. This interest in long-term conditions has continued but has been supplemented most notably by a very influential series of publications on social control via ‘medicalisation’ and its evolving ‘engines’. After the manner of Bill Cockerham, he has also spread the medical sociological word far and wide through key textbooks and anthologies. Watch his interview with Jon Gabe on the ‘Sociology of Health and Illness’ website (then switch back immediately to the ‘Social Theory and Health’ website).

Nikolas Rose is another Foucauldian, so what is he doing in my list? After a pint in the ‘Green Man’ in Mortimer Street he once told me he berated any Ph.D candidate at LSE (he’s at KCL now) who wanted to ask, let alone answer, ‘why’ questions (in my view sociology is about ‘why’ queries, not just Foucauldian curiosities about ‘how’). Well, he is included for his challenging originality. He was early onto Conrad-type interrogations of medicalisation, offering his own subtle tweaks. These tweaks edged him towards the idea of ‘somatic society’, which he elaborated in one of our ‘Social Theory and Health’ annual lectures. Like the others on this list, Nik’s work is not derivative, clearly another criteria for inclusion. We should not have to sign up to a paradigm or body of ideas to appreciate its inventiveness.

Gareth Williams’ work impacts on a number of different fronts. His writings in the 1980s spawned the concept of ‘narrative reconstruction’ (sibling to Bury’s ‘biographical disruption’, Charmaz’ ‘loss of self’ and my own ‘felt’ and ‘enacted stigma’). His current, longstanding programme of empirical research into ‘lay knowledge’ and action in the health domain, much of it conducted with Jennie Popay, is (a) independent-minded and innovative; (b) theoretically informed, albeit with a light and subtle touch; and (c) oriented to promoting and implementing effective policy change. A feature of this work is its use of qualitative methods to investigate phenomena like health inequalities; and he and Jennie have ploughed a lonely furrow. He is engaged too with the Welsh communities he studies. Like Jennie, is among the few in medical sociology to visit each of Burawoy’s four sociologies (even dipping a toe into a fifth, what I have called ‘action sociology’). Moreover he writes so elegantly.

Vicente Navarro’s place may be both predictable and unpredictable. He may be the leading international Marxist exponent of the political economy of health and health care, but is he original? Perhaps he has written too much (and too much in his own journal)? But he has for a long while been the lone, persistent voice of radical dissent, harassing policy-insiders like Marmot ‘to tell truth to power’. Moreover he has laid the foundations for the kind of neo-Marxist theory of health and health care, as well as of health inequalities, that I favour. David Coburn’s thesis against Richard Wilkinson’s psycho-social model of health inequalities, plus my own efforts, can be read as add-ons. Vicente, whom I met the once, as with Elliot Freidson in the company of Margot Jefferys in a taxi ride from York rail station to the Viking Hotel for an early MedSoc, has durability.

As I said, I have not considered close friends and associates in London for inclusion here, and clearly with a different career trajectory I would have met and/or read others. I can even now think of an alternative dozen names. Nevertheless, here are twelve medical sociologists whose work I greatly respect. As with previous lists, the invitation is to submit rival names. Maybe some of my alternative dozen will make it after all.

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