The Influence of Sociology on Establishing Social Hygiene in Germany (1890-1920)

Friday, July 18, 2014: 6:10 PM
Room: 313+314
Oral Presentation
Christina MAY , Sociology, Georg-August-Universitaet Goettingen, Goettingen, Germany
In the course of the nineteenth century, epidemics and contagious diseases proved to be a considerably threat to society. Ideas to promote prophylactic medical care that was directed at larger collectives (instead of relying on a curative doctor-patient relationship) were put forward in Germany already in the 1850s. A professionalization of this expertise and an acknowledgement by public and political discourse however only started slowly in the 1890s, with a high phase in the Weimar Republic in the 1920s. Why was “Social Hygiene”, as the new field of expertise soon was to be called, successful in exactly this period of time?

In my paper I propose that this acceptance of Social Hygiene can in part be attributed to the emergence of sociology in Germany. Sociology put forward ideas of a structured society, sometimes with analogies to organisms like the human body. Reinforced by processes of nationalization, this led to ideas of a societal body, or “Volkskörper”. Medical experts could use these ideas in order to legitimize Social Hygiene as a new profession that led to paradigmatic changes in the fight against diseases: Social circumstances needed to be changed. New statistical methods hinted at the stratification of morbidity, therefore fighting germs was not sufficient, instead living and nutritional conditions needed to be ameliorated. Social Hygiene led to a multitude of academic publications, from 1920 onwards medical faculties established professorships in the field.  However, as the proposed means were diffuse and hard to apply, the actual implementation of measures varied considerably and was far away from being included in national legislation. Although the interpretative knowledge put forward by Social Hygienists proved to inform the contemporary debates, the actual application of sociological ideas in political and medical programmes remained incomplete.