Ivan Illich’s Theory of Imperial Medicalisation

Ivan Illich was born in Austria in 1926. He studied Theology and Philosophy in Rome and went on to obtain a doctorate in History from Salzburg University. Illich then moved to America in 1951, serving as an assistant pastor in New York. He went on to be the co-founder of the Centre for Intercultural Documentation in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Since then Illich has many published works specialising in education, medicine, work, energy use, transportation, and economic development.  

This blog focuses on his work on medical imperialism, which is based around the idea that all aspects of life are becoming medicalised. Personal dependence has now moved to a dependence on health care. The lay population, now convinced that the medical professions have all the skills and knowledge (Illich, 1976). As a radical thinker Illich, argues that “the medical establishment has become a serious threat to human life because, in conjunction with capitalism, it is an institution that serves itself and makes more people sick than it heals” (Beeden & Zyl. 2015; 261).

Illich is a critic of industrial society, this is reflected in his thoughts of the medical establishment, which he describe as ‘sickening’. This is explained as three main points: it “must produce clinical damages which outweigh its potential benefits”, it “obscures the political conditions which render society unhealthy” and it takes away the power from an individual to “heal himself and to shape his or her environment” (Illich, 1976:11).


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