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Diagnosis has always played a pivotal role in medical practice, but in the past two centuries, that role has been reconfigured and has become more central as medicine—like Western society in general—has become increasingly technical, specialized, and bureaucratized. Disease explanations and clinical practices have incorporated, paralleled, and, in some measure, constituted these larger structural changes.

This modern history of diagnosis is inextricably related to disease specificity, to the notion that diseases can and should be thought of as entities existing outside the unique manifestations of illness in particular men and women. During the past century especially, diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment have been linked ever more tightly to specific, agreed-upon disease categories, in both concept and everyday practice. In fact, this essay might have been entitled “Diagnosis Mediates an Invisible Revolution: The Social and Intellectual Significance of Specific Disease Concepts.” It would have been even more precise, if rather less arresting.

The articulation and acceptance of specific disease entities constitute one of the most important intellectual and cultural events of the past two centuries. This notion is central to how we organize health care delivery, think about ourselves, debate and formulate social policy, and define and manage deviance. Diagnosis is indispensable to linking specific disease concepts with doctor and patient and the social and economic institutions shaping such clinical interactions. Disease is a social entity, not an array of ideal types. The history of medicine is partly the story of how disease entities have become social entities, accumulating the flesh of diagnostic and therapeutic practice, social expectation, and bureaucratic reification. Despite criticism of reductionist medicine in the West and less focus on disease entities and mechanisms, our social response still depends on this concept of sickness. But this concept can no longer remain invisible if we are to understand contemporary medicine as both a social and a technological system.The articulation and acceptance of specific disease entities constitute one of the most important intellectual and cultural events of the past two centuries. This notion is central to how we organize health care delivery, think about ourselves, debate and formulate social policy, and define and manage deviance. Diagnosis is indispensable to linking specific disease concepts with doctor and patient and the social and economic institutions shaping such clinical interactions. Disease is a social entity, not an array of ideal types. The history of medicine is partly the story of how disease entities have become social entities, accumulating the flesh of diagnostic and therapeutic practice, social expectation, and bureaucratic reification. Despite criticism of reductionist medicine in the West and less focus on disease entities and mechanisms, our social response still depends on this concept of sickness. But this concept can no longer remain invisible if we are to understand contemporary medicine as both a social and a technological system.The articulation and acceptance of specific disease entities constitute one of the most important intellectual and cultural events of the past two centuries. This notion is central to how we organize health care delivery, think about ourselves, debate and formulate social policy, and define and manage deviance. Diagnosis is indispensable to linking specific disease concepts with doctor and patient and the social and economic institutions shaping such clinical interactions. Disease is a social entity, not an array of ideal types. The history of medicine is partly the story of how disease entities have become social entities, accumulating the flesh of diagnostic and therapeutic practice, social expectation, and bureaucratic reification. Despite criticism of reductionist medicine in the West and less focus on disease entities and mechanisms, our social response still depends on this concept of sickness. But this concept can no longer remain invisible if we are to understand contemporary medicine as both a social and a technological system.The articulation and acceptance of specific disease entities constitute one of the most important intellectual and cultural events of the past two centuries. This notion is central to how we organize health care delivery, think about ourselves, debate and formulate social policy, and define and manage deviance. Diagnosis is indispensable to linking specific disease concepts with doctor and patient and the social and economic institutions shaping such clinical interactions. Disease is a social entity, not an array of ideal types. The history of medicine is partly the story of how disease entities have become social entities, accumulating the flesh of diagnostic and therapeutic practice, social expectation, and bureaucratic reification. Despite criticism of reductionist medicine in the West and less focus on disease entities and mechanisms, our social response still depends on this concept of sickness. But this concept can no longer remain invisible if we are to understand contemporary medicine as both a social and a technological system.