Sociology of Health and Illness 101: Illness, the Body and the Working Class


The body is an incredible machine that performs countless vital processes to protect itself from illness and disease without a second thought. Yet when even a single one of these defense mechanisms is disrupted, the consequences can be catastrophic. Physical symptoms chain the body’s freedom to a new set of limitations, mental illness alters how the mind perceives its surroundings, and a loss of social and economic power is experienced through the acts of both medical institutions and the public eye. This series will explore the debilitating effects of illness on the individual and how these effects change depending on social and economic class and the nature of the illness, as well as how this changes discourse surrounding genetic selection and death at the end of life.

Sociology of Health and Illness 101 will be divided into the following six chapters:

  1. Sociology of Health and Illness 101: Illness, the Body and the Working Class

  2. Sociology of Health and Illness 101: Disability and the Ethics of Embryo Selection

  3. Sociology of Health and Illness 101: The Doctor-Patient Relationship

  4. Sociology of Health and Illness 101: Skin Disease and the Stigma of Illness

  5. Sociology of Health and Illness 101: The Social Consequences of Mental Illness

  6. Sociology of Health and Illness 101: Death as Experienced by the Living

Sociology of Health and Illness 101: Illness, the Body and the Working Class

To truly understand the significance of the body in creating social, political and economic agency for the individual, it is prudent to first examine how these attributes suffer when the body performs at a suboptimal level. This phenomenon can be clearly observed when the body falls ill and becomes a burden to its owner, struggling to fulfill the tasks and requirements it once met with ease. It is important to note, however, that the ways in which illness is experienced change depending on not just the social and economic class of the individual, but also the nature of the illness. Whether the illness is temporary or chronic, along with the method by which it is contracted, this will change which populations are most susceptible to the disease and how it is treated, thus changing the sociological ramifications of the illness.

Infectious Disease in Working Class Environments

The significance of the healthy bodyas multifuncitonal agent for the individual is better perceived when the effect illness produces to the whole variety of the body's functions . It is important to note however, that the ways in which an illness is experienced changes depending on not just the social and economic class of the individual, but also the nature of the illness. The amount of time the illness lasts, along with the method by which it is contracted, will change which populations are most susceptible to the disease and how it is treated, thus changing the sociological ramifications of the illness.

Figure 1: Illness can take many different forms

While it is true that there are many differences between each illness with regards to the exact influence it has on the sufferer’s life, the general trends surrounding illnesses show that their consequences are felt more frequently and more severely by the lower social and economic classes (Matthews 2015). There are many reasons why this is the case, though a large amount of them are relevant specifically to infectious disease caused by pathogens like bacteria, viruses, or parasites. Lower paying occupations such as refuse or care home workers have a higher exposure to infectious illnesses due to the environments they work in and the low of income these people earn from their jobs typically correlates with a lack of education on the appropriate health and safety methods to keep themselves healthy (Haagsma et al. 2012). This only exacerbates the existing wealth inequalities between the infected impoverished population and their richer counterparts, as poorer people will be more dependent on their day-to-day earnings to provide food and shelter for their families and themselves (White 2002). Furthermore, the many working-class occupations involving manual labour have few opportunities to work from home, and as owning a car or other means of personal transportation is rare for them, many working class citizens have no choice but to use public transport to commute (Morales et al, 2022). While they are convenient and relatively cheap, the high concentration of people in public vehicles combined with a lack of sufficient ventilation means that said transport remains a hotspot for airborne diseases like the common flu, and more recently COVID-19, further increasing the chances of infection for members of the working class (Park & Kim, 2021).

In more extreme cases of poverty, a lack of access to basic necessities like clean water or sufficient shelter leads to more deadly and debilitating illnesses like cholera and hypothermia, which due to the nature in which they spread remain exceedingly rare among the wealthier echelons of society. Even in the unlikely event that either of these diseases happens to infect the richer populations, wealthier people can afford to pay for better and more quickly administered health care, turning medicine into a classist barrier to good health (Waitzkin, 1978). In this sense, illness becomes a form of social control: it is more likely to affect poorer populations, and the consequences of becoming infected reduce the economic mobility of these people as it becomes harder for them to make ends meet and take time off for self-improvement to climb up the economic ladder (White, 2002). Arguments that the frequent occurrence of illness in working-class communities are a result of illness dragging the individual down economically ignore how an illness is a byproduct of simply spending time in working-class environments and being unable to afford treatment when disease does spread (White, 2002).

Figure 2: A lack of basic needs like clean drinking water drastically increases the chance of incurring illness and disease

Deficiency and Mental Illness

A similar dynamic is present when observing illnesses caused by deficiencies in specific nutrients or vitamins. Illnesses such as scurvy and rickets occur due to a lack of vitamin C and vitamin D respectively, and are best treated by taking preventative measures before their onset, that is making lifestyle changes to prioritise the required vitamins. Although this means that the sick person is no longer limited by their ability to pay for expensive medicine, preventative measures require both education on what precautions must be taken for different illnesses and the means to follow through with said treatment (Radley, 1994). An argument against the impact of class on susceptibility to illness would suggest that working class citizens choose more unhealthy lifestyles of their own volition, but this is simply not the case. Healthier foods or vitamin supplements containing the necessary vitamins and minerals require a certain level of disposable income that the poorer members of society do not have, and getting sufficient sunlight exposure for vitamin D deficiencies becomes difficult for those long hours or night shifts in closed off factories and warehouses (Fein, 1995). It is not that the working class chooses poor lifestyle habits, but they are forced into these choices through a lack of career prospects.

In addition to the many increased risk factors for the transmission of infectious and deficiency disease, lower socio-economic classes face a much higher rate of emotional disturbance, and by extension mental illnesses. Once again, this correlation is in part because the occupations commonly seen amongst the working classes involve a monotonous day to day life that lacks a sense of purpose, and a high turnover rate means the employee’s livelihood is at risk if the company decides they need to be replaced. To make things worse, alcohol and substance misuse are familiar coping methods for these issues in the lower social and economic classes, which then makes finding other employment more difficult and can manifest itself as physical illness through conditions like gout and organ disease (Murali & Oyebode, 2018). Mental illness in poverty spreads across the whole family too, as parents in poverty suffering from mental illness are more likely to use harsh and erratic disciplinary methods on their children, and are either unwilling or unable to provide sufficient support for their children at school. This greatly inhibits the child's development of necessary cognitive skills and behaviour, leading to a lack of future employment prospects and poor mental health as the cycle begins anew (Rutter et al., 1975). Similar to the ways in which infectious and deficiency diseases are both caused by and lead to stagnation in working-class living conditions, mental illness post onset is only further fuelled by the deterioration of social mobility and the physical symptoms it causes.

Figure 3: The adverse conditions of poverty affects the mind


While physical and mental illnesses have no personal bias of their own, the fact remains that the lower social and economic classes are both more likely to suffer from illness and face more intense disruptions when they do. The ways in which an illness is avoided through modern medicine and preventative lifestyle changes become a gatekeeper to wellness for those that cannot afford the necessary treatment or have less wiggle room to change their own habits. Moreover, the mental toll taken from the lack of meaningful success and opportunities for improvement at work is a significant threat of its own. Escaping the very environment that caused the illness becomes exponentially harder once it takes hold, illustrating how illness becomes a sentinel of social and economic class in modern society.

Bibliographical References

Fein, O. (1995). The influence of social class on health status. Journal Of General Internal Medicine, 10(10), 577-586.

Haagsma, J., Tariq, L., Heederik, D., & Havelaar, A. (2011). Infectious disease risks associated with occupational exposure: a systematic review of the literature. Occupational And Environmental Medicine, 69(2), 140-146.

Matthews, D. (2015). Sociology in nursing 2: social class and its influence on health. Nursing Times, 111(42), 20-21.

Morales, D., Beltran, T., & Morales, S. (2022). Gender, socioeconomic status, and COVID‐19 vaccine hesitancy in the US: An intersectionality approach. Sociology Of Health &Amp; Illness, 44(6), 953-971.

Murali, V., & Oyebode, F. (2018). Poverty, social inequality and mental health. Advances In Psychiatric Treatment, 10(3), 216-224.

Park, J., & Kim, G. (2021). Risk of COVID-19 Infection in Public Transportation: The Development of a Model. International Journal Of Environmental Research And Public Health, 18(23), 12790.

Rutter, M., Yule, B., Quinton, D., Rowlands, O., Yule, W., & Berger, M. (1975). Attainment and Adjustment in Two Geographical Areas. British Journal Of Psychiatry, 126(6), 520-533.

Radley, A. (1994). Making sense of illness. UK: Sage.

Waitzkin, H. (1978). A Marxist View of Medical Care. Annals Of Internal Medicine, 89(2), 264.

White, K. (2002). An introduction to the sociology of health and illness. UK: Sage.

Visual References

Cover Image: Healthcare Finance. MIT Laboratory for Financial Engineering. (n.d.). Retrieved September 19, 2022, from

Figure 1: Happypictures. Illness can take many different forms [Image]. Retrieved 15 September 2022, from

Figure 2: mladi!nfo. (2016). A lack of basic needs like clean drinking water drastically increases the chance of incurring illness and disease [Image]. Retrieved 14 September 2022, from

Figure 3: Happy pictures. 6). The adverse conditions of poverty affects the mind [Image]. Retrieved 15 September 2022, from

Author Photo

Bastien Poole

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