William R. Avison

  • In 2004, the discipline of sociology celebrated the 100th anniversary of the founding of the American Sociological Association. In 2005, the Section on Medical Sociology celebrated 50 years since the formation of the Committee on Medical Sociology within the ASA. And, in 2003, the Section on the Sociology of Mental Health celebrated ten years since its founding within the American branch of the discipline. This brief accounting marks the American-based or- nizational landmarks central to concerns about how social factors shape the mental health problems individuals face as well as the individual and system responses that follow. This history also lays a trail of how the focus on mental health and illness has narrowed from a general concern of the discipline to a more intense, substantively-focused community of scholars targeting a common set of specific theoretical and empirical questions. While mental health and illness figured prominently in the writings of classical sociologists, contem- rary sociologists often view research on mental health as peripheral to the "real work" of the discipline. The sentiment, real or perceived, is that the sociology of mental health, along with its sister, medical sociology, may be in danger of both losing its prominence in the discipline and losing its connection to the ma- stream core of sociological knowledge (Pescosolido & Kronenfeld, 1995).

  • In 1981, Leonard Pearlin and his colleagues published an article that would ra- cally shift the sociological study of mental health from an emphasis on psychiatric disorder to a focus on social structure and its consequences for stress and psyc- logical distress. Pearlin et al. (1981) proposed a deceptively simple conceptual model that has now influenced sociological inquiry for almost three decades. With his characteristic penchant for reconsidering and elaborating his own ideas, Pearlin has revisited the stress process model periodically over the years (Pearlin 1989, 1999; Pearlin et al. 2005; Pearlin and Skaff 1996). One of the consequences of this continued theoretical elaboration of the stress process has been the development of a sociological model of stress that embraces the complexity of social life. Another consequence is that the stress process has continued to stimulate a host of empirical investigations in the sociology of mental health. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to suggest that the stress process paradigm has been primarily responsible for the growth and sustenance of sociological research on stress and mental health. Pearlin et al. (1981) described the core elements of the stress process in a brief paragraph: The process of social stress can be seen as combining three major conceptual domains: the sources of stress, the mediators of stress, and the manifestations of stress. Each of these extended domains subsumes a variety of subparts that have been intensively studied in recent years.