Tuberculosis (TB) researchers and clinicians, by virtue of the social disease they study, are drawn into an engagement with ways of understanding illness that extend beyond the strictly biomedical model. Primers on social science concepts directly relevant to TB, however, are lacking. The particularities of TB disease mean that certain social science concepts are more relevant than others. Concepts such as structural violence can seem complicated and off-putting. Other concepts, such as gender, can seem so familiar that they are left relatively unexplored. An intimate familiarity with the social dimensions of disease is valuable, particularly for infectious diseases, because the social model is an important complement to the biomedical model. This review article offers an important introduction to a selection of concepts directly relevant to TB from health sociology, medical anthropology and social cognitive theory. The article has pedagogical utility and also serves as a useful refresher for those researchers already engaged in this genre of work. The conceptual tools of health sociology, medical anthropology and social cognitive theory offer insightful ways to examine the social, historical and cultural dimensions of public health. By recognizing cultural experience as a central force shaping human interactions with the world, TB researchers and clinicians develop a more nuanced consideration of how health, illness and medical treatment are understood, interpreted and confronted.