Parsons’ sick role
by Kath Maguire
Learning objective: Understanding social roles and Parsons’ sick role The model of the sick role The model of the sick role, which Talcott Parsons designed in the 1950s, was the first theoretical concept that explicitly concerned medical sociology. In contrast to the biomedical model, which pictures illness as a mechanical malfunction or a microbiological invasion, Parsons described the sick role as a temporary, medically sanctioned form of deviant behaviour. Parsons used ideas from Freud’s psychoanalytic theories as well as from functionalism and from Max Weber’s work on authority to create an ‘ideal type’ that could be used to shed light on the social forces involved in episodes of sickness. Freud’s concepts of transference and counter-transference led Parsons to see the doctor/patient relationship as analogous to that of the parent and child. The idea that a sick person has conflicting drives both to recover from the illness and to continue to enjoy the ‘secondary gains’ of attention and exemption from normal duties also stems from a Freudian model of the structure of the personality. The functionalist perspective was used by Parsons to explain the social role of sickness by examining the use of the sick role mechanism. In order to be excused their usual duties and to be considered not to be responsible for their condition, the sick person is expected to seek professional advice and to adhere to treatments in order to get well. Medical practitioners are empowered to sanction their temporary absence from the workforce and family duties as well as to absolve them of blame. Weber identified three types of authority: charismatic, using the force of personality; traditional, how it has always been; and rational/legal authority, which relies on a framework of rules and specialist knowledge. While individual doctors may have any or all of...