Photo by Egor Myznik on Unsplash

War and conflict are very much part of our global experience as we move into 2024. The conflicts in Ukraine and in Gaza are ongoing and prominent in Global North media and popular discourse.  Other conflicts, such as in Syria and Sudan, have however become invisibilised for multiple reasons, but often that those conflicts involve people of colour and exists at a safe distance in and contained to the Global South.

We are moving into less optimistic times. The sureties that were taken for granted in the post-Second World War period seem to be falling away, that global society was advancing perhaps not seamlessly but at least stumbling forward to permanent peace and progress is giving way to fracture and conflict. We are now living in a time of the highest number of violent conflicts since the Second World War. The numbers currently affected by war are staggering. The United Nations has identified that 114 million people have needed to flee their homes and have been displaced by the close of 2023.

As with all conflicts throughout time the current conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza share one commonality: the damage and destruction of embodied human beings.  All wars and conflict revolve around inflicting pain and death at some point, the compromise of the mental and physical integrity of social agents, their health and wellbeing, as Scarry has eloquently laid out in her work on the body and pain. As she notes the winning of war is made ‘… by the sheer material weight of the multitudes of damaged and opened bodies.’

Wars also create suffering that exceeds the official end of conflicts. People are left traumatised, sorting out the events they have witnessed and experience that surpasses what should be experienced by a human being. Individuals, communities and whole societies can experience emotional pain for generations.

I want to raise the question of how the sociology of health and wellbeing can come to terms with war and its attendant suffering, and its depletion of health and wellbeing?

It is an area that sociologists in this area have not studied in great depth.  Exceptions do exist. Williams’ meditations on bio-terrorism and war provides one example, as do  Bradby’s and Lewando Hunt’s edited collection on  war, gender and health, and work .

Sociologists of health, by-and-large, and quite rightly, focus on the everyday issues of health and wellbeing, which in turn can expose a whole raft of social injustices and structural violence. I do not propose any answers here, but rather I want to pose the question of what is (and is not) useful in the vast toolbox of medical sociology that can make sense of the damages of war on health and wellbeing. What can a sub-discipline that focuses on the embodied social agent reveal about war, about how health services can function in the midst of conflict, about how the injured bodies and minds of civilians and combatants construct their identities and lives in a society that is disrupted beyond recognition? And so much more.

I don’t presume to offer answers here, and indeed it might be that medical sociology cannot contribute.  But I believe it can make a useful contribution, with much to offer. That as I see it, is the challenge ahead.