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The Sick Role

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The Sick Role
By Kathleen Rhodes

Talcott Parsons first put forth his idea of “the sick role” in his book The Social System (1951). This idea included a number of concepts. One, was when a person was sick they were excused by society from day to day activities like working or taking care of the children. Two, the sicker a person was the less was expected from them. He stated, however, that this sickness must be confirmed by a doctor to confirm or “legitimize” the illness. Thirdly, included in this sick role model was the fact that a person didn’t choose to be sick, it was something they had no control over. Lastly, they are, however, expected by society to get better and return to their daily activities. To accomplish this they are expected to go to the doctor and follow his directions on how to get well (Cockerham, pps 148-149). David Rier (2000), a medical sociologist, disagreed with Parsons’ view that one would just follow blindly and do whatever the doctor told them to do. He felt that that Parson’s sick role was an old fashioned approach and that the patients of today would have a more pro-active participation in the process. What he discovered in reality, however, as a critically ill patient in the Intensive Care Unit, was that he behaved exactly as Parsons wrote. He had to depend on the doctors to make him well. He had to put his trust in them and do what they told him to do. A good example of how the sick role can be sought after in society can be seen in the article by Lesley Cooper ( Sociology of Health and Illness,1997,19(2), 186-207). In it Cooper states, “those who reportedly have myalgic encephalomyelitis(ME) desperately wanted a diagnosis so they could gain entry into the sick role(Parson, 1951), and acceptance would legitimize the illness.” Giving it a medical name (“XYZ Disease”) gives the person the “ticket” for entry into the sick role. It was not until 1994 when Parliament...

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