Through the Looking Glass The Fortunes of the Sociology of Mental Health

Bernice A. Pescosolido, Jane D. McLeod, and William R. Avison

From its very beginning, mental health has been central to the sociological understanding of society. Concerned about issues of life, death and well-being, the founders of sociology staked a claim for a new discipline concerned with how larger historical forces and new institutional structures shaped the fate of individuals. Marx (1964, p. 11) found alienation inherent in all modern institutions, but particularly when immersion in the workplace destroys a person's "inner life" (1964, p. 122). Durkheim (1951; 1954) wondered how the normlessness of modern life, anomie, would predispose individuals to suicide and he grappled with the loss of faith that he saw as endemic to the transition to modern society (see also Masaryk, 1970, on earlier, similar concerns). Simmel considered how the greater freedoms of modern society are accompanied by "psychological tensions or even a schizophrenic break" despite greater societal tolerance. He saw "external and internal conflicts [which] arise through the multiplicity of group-affiliations" that characterized the new social forms of the early 20th century (Simmel, 1955, p. 141). And following from this, Veblen linked social class (and particularly property ownership), social relationships and mental health. He believed that "(o)nly individuals with an aberrant temperament can in the long run retain their self-esteem in the face of the disesteem of their fellows" (Veblen, 1934, pp. 30-31).

These interests in no way imply that the founders of the discipline were fundamentally interested in mental health, illness or treatment, per se.1 In fact, it is widely known that, for Durkheim, suicide was merely a strategic choice with which to make the case for the new discipline of sociology (Pescosolido, 1994). Others referred to mental illness only as a limiting case. For example, Weber, in his treatise on rationality, argued that only the behavior of "the insane" was truly unpredictable (Shils & Finch, 1949, p. 24). Robert E. Park's work with Ernest W. Burgess on concentric zone theory used mental illness as only one example to show how the dense urban centers of metropolitan areas produced the highest level of social problems, with corresponding decreases

1 Nor could they have been. The restricted and vague conceptualization of mental illness that dominated the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries precluded serious research interest in mental illness as the concept is understood today.

as distance from the core increased. Laying out issues of the self, status and roles in their Introduction to the Science of Society (Park & Burgess, 1921: 55), they suggested that "(t)he individual whose conception of himself does not conform to his status is an isolated individual. The completely isolated individual, whose conception of himself is in no sense an adequate reflection of his status, is probably insane" (p. 55).

Yet, neither does their dilettantish use of mental health and illness mean that the founders of the discipline have not influenced theory and empirical research in the sociology of mental health. Weber's basic ideas about the power of society to determine life chances, Marx's concern with the implications of economic exploitation for self-actualization, and Durkheim's analyses of social integration continue to shape influential research agendas in the Sociology of Mental Health (Weber, Gerth, & Mills, 1946). Rather, the relevant historical point is that early sociological interest in mental health, mental illness, and treatment reflected the major concerns that occupied the founders - the implications of the transition from agrarian to industrial society for individuals. Serious attention to mental health and illness, as topics in their own right, only began in the post-World War II boom that coincided both with the growth of the subfield of medical sociology and its link to the intramural program at the National Institute of Mental Health (see Bloom, 2002, for a general history of medical sociology; see Schooler in this volume).2 Since that time, sociological research on mental health and mental illness has continued to evolve in tandem with its parent discipline and more general developments in mental health research (see Pearlin, Avison, & Fazio, in this volume).

In this introductory chapter, we consider the relationship of research in the Sociology of Mental Health to the sociological mainstream by reviewing historical trends in the quantity and substance of sociological research on mental health in the discipline's two major, generalist journals, the American Journal of Sociology and the American Sociological Review. In essence, we ask: What types of mental health research are represented in these journals? Or, to phrase it differently, if all we knew about mental health, mental illness, and its treatment was what we read in the ASR and the AJS, what would we know?3 We observe substantial continuity in the topics that have been represented in the journals over the years along with the waxing and waning of specific substantive interests.

2 The tie to medical sociology has continued even after the new ASA Section on the Sociology of Mental Health was formed in 1991. At the point of this writing, just over half of the members of the Section on the Sociology of Mental Health also belong to the Medical Sociology Section (54% of the 472 members) while almost one quarter of the Medical Sociology Section members also belong to the Mental Health Section (22% of the 1,164 members; Edwards, personal communication 2006). The overlap in membership between the two sections speaks to a close alliance in the interests of both subfields.

3 We credit Susan Cotts Watkins and her Presidential Address in Demography (1993), in which she asked a similar question about the representation of gender issues in its flagship journal.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment