The construction of ethnic differences in work incapacity risks: Analysing ordering practices of physicians in the Netherlands

Agnes Meershoek*, Anja Krumeich, Rein Vos

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Drawing from Science and Technology Studies we investigate the consequences for social differentiation of physicians' practices in Dutch illness certification. Using participant observation methods, we followed six 'Arbodienst' physicians for two weeks each. Our analysis explores whether and how the work of Dutch physicians contributes to the appearance of a category of 'problematic migrant patients'. We present how physicians, in using instruments to distinguish plausible from implausible claims for sick leave, impose order upon reality. In particular situations this ordering involves a distinction between Dutch and migrant clients. Here ethnicity appears in physicians' practice as a separate instrument to constitute order, which in the case of migrants overrules the productive instruments that are used for 'Dutch' clients. By interpreting clients' behaviour in cultural terms and making them into strangers, physicians lose their ability to fine-tune their coaching activities to the needs of these clients. As a result migrants remain work incapacitated for a longer period, which leads to a higher risk of their ending up in the disability pension program. As a consequence migrants become visible as a problematic group in the data on work incapacity and disability. The practice to categorise migrant clients with separate instruments thus results in a 'hard' category of problematic migrant clients and leads to social differentiation.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)15-22
JournalSocial Science & Medicine
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2011


  • Ordering practices
  • Ethnicity
  • Illness certification
  • Social differentiation
  • Culture
  • Professional practice
  • Doctor-patient interaction
  • Netherlands
  • Arbodiensten

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