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 created a Task Force to study it and produced a report accepting it as a true condition that people who believed they suffered from ME were able to officially gain entry into that sick role (Cooper, p 187). Prior to that they had great difficulty both at home and at work because they were thought to either have mental issues or be malingering. They also had trouble getting any disability benefits(Cooper, p 196). So for them, until their “condition” was accepted by society they could not have the full advantages gained in the sick role (Cooper, p 203). Is illness or the concept of being sick a deviance? According to the dictionary ( Unabridged,v 1.1,Random House, Inc.), being deviant is defined as, “a person or thing that deviates or departs markedly from the accepted norm.” Parsons (1951) saw this “sick role” as a deviance because being sick is not the “normal” state of a person. Sickness also stops someone from being a productive member of society. So to the society as a whole, this is considered an undesirable condition. It interferes with the function of the group either as a family unit or society as a whole (Cockerham, pps 144-145). So is Parsons (1951) making a value-judgment by calling illness a deviance? Some would argue that illness is just a normal part of the human cycle of life like living and dying. I don’t think Parsons was -2- trying to say it was a bad thing to be sick or that you were a bad person. He clearly stated that it was something a person had no control over. I believe he was just trying to point out that when everyone in the society is healthy and contributing to the growth and well-being of the group things are “normal”. When people are ill, however, the group does not function at full capacity and, therefore, a deviance from that “normal” functioning has occurred. There are some shortcomings in Parsons sick role model concept. It does not account...
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