Story of the Week  

Social Representations of Health and Illness


It is now well accepted that health and illness beliefs may not be learned from direct experience but are derived via constructive processes of communication and interaction. Beliefs about health and illness are rooted in everyday social-psychological processes and may represent a meaning system different from medical and scientific knowledge. What we know about health and illness may be an artifact of cultural and social-psychological processes. Socially determined meaning systems also provide an insight regarding transformation of scientific knowledge into lay meaning. Everyday knowledge is less explicit and less defined than scientific knowledge, but takes into account aspects of scientific rationalization. An important point to be noted is that, in order to understand the conceptualization and commonly understood meaning pattern of health and illness, the connection between individual knowledge and implicit social knowledge needs to be explored. This relationship can be explored by studying social representations.

In recent years the theoretical framework offered by the social representations theory has been increasingly used to understand health and illness behaviour. Serge Moscovici outlined the initial ideas regarding social representations. Moscovici's conceptualization was based on the work of scholars like Levy-Bruhl, Durkheim and Piaget. Social representations constitute commonsense or shared meanings and contents of everyday thinking. Social representations are not merely shared opinions, attitudes or images; they are dimensions of knowledge that are utilized consensually for organizing and making sense of reality.

Our research is mainly concerned with understanding the social representations of mental as well as physical health and illness. We are also trying to understand the representations of madness. Understanding of such representations would provide guidelines for designing effective community intervention programs and inputs pertaining to policy matters in the health sector. Such inputs can be derived from the differences emerging in representations due to factors such as socio-economic status, gender and urban/rural setting. In addition to this, our research also aims to study social representations of health and illness among tribal population. Work on social representations among cancer patients and their caregivers is also underway. An attempt is being made to study the differences in representations of lay people and medical professionals. Overall, all these studies have important implications for understanding the complex relationship between culture and health beliefs and identifying gaps between professional and lay knowledge. On the methodological front we are employing both qualitative and quantitative approaches in order to study the content as well as structure of social representations as naturally occurring consensual meaning systems.


Dr. Shikha Dixit
Associate Professor of Psychology

Department of Humanities and Social Sciences
Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur

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