An Historical Overview of Conceptions of Disability in Sociological Theory

Monday, 16 July 2018: 10:54
Oral Presentation
Sara GREEN, University of South Florida, USA
Sharon BARNARTT, Sociology, Gallaudet University, Washington, DC, USA 20002, USA
Disability is a socially constructed category, and sociological theories and theorists reflect this process. This paper examines how sociological theorists have—or, sometimes, have not-- conceptualized disability throughout the years. Most early theoretical work tended to ignore disability (with a few exceptions, such as Martineau). When disability was discussed, in line with other disciplines of the time, American sociology applied a strong dose of eugenics to disability conceptualizations. Before World Was II, despite its empirical presence, disability was mostly ignored in sociological theory. From the 1950’s through 1970’s, disability tended to be viewed either as sickness (Parsons) or deviance (Goffman). Both saw disability as being undesirable and stigmatized; however, they differed in their moral attributions and therefore in their views of society's expected reactions. There was one theorist (Nagi) who viewed disability as an interaction between person and environment, but his work was [and is] largely ignored. After 1970, newer conceptualization began to emerge in the US and the UK. Emphasizing a social rather than a medical or deviance model of disability, these conceptualizations emphasized the role of societies and social factors in producing disability and the lives of people with disabilities. They variously viewed people with disabilities as being in a role, being a minority group, being a cultural group, or (one subset--deaf people) being a linguistic group. Most recently, theorists have begun to use intersectional analyses, such as those applied to race, class, and gender, in order to view disability as similar to those characteristics although widely overlooked in those analyses.