The Theory of the Sick Role

“Validation is needed from the doctor … once that is granted, the patient may assume the privileges of the sick role (sympathy, time off from work, benefits, etc.).”

– Simon Wessely

Today, I will make you discover a concept that might take you by surprise: the theory of the sick role!

What Is the Sick Role?

In his book, “The Social System”, Talcott Parsons, a well-known American sociologist, put forward one of the most famous concepts in the field of sociology of health and illness: the sick role.

Instead of just accepting the idea of sickness as a biological concept, the sociologist claimed that it was a social concept and the theory suggested that being ill meant acting in different, deviant ways compared to the norm. Being sick was, therefore a form of social role, with people acting in particular ways according to the culture of the society.

Let’s now discover the four elements, two of which are rights of the sick role and the remaining two are the obligations of the sick role.

The Rights of the Sick Role:

Sick, Girl, Woman, Coffee, Portrait, Face, Girl

  1. The sick person has the right to be exempted from normal social obligations such as attending employment or fully engaging in family activities. However, the extent to which the person can take on the sick role and so avoid regular duties depends upon the seriousness of the illness and other people’s acceptance that they are genuinely ill. For example, employers might reject an employee’s claim to be sick and unable to work. They may argue that the person is merely feigning illness. In cases like this, a medical expert is called upon to decide on the validity of the claim to be sick.
  2. The sick role is something that the person can do nothing about and for which they should not be blamed – they, therefore, have the right to be “looked after” by others. The sick role effectively absolves the person from any blame for their social deviance.

The Obligations of the Sick Role:

Hospice, Care, Patient, Elderly, Old

  1. The sick people must accept that the situation they are in is undesirable and that they should seek to get well as soon as possible.
  2. The sick person must seek professional help and cooperate with the medical profession to get better.

According to Parsons, the sick role’s rights are completely dependent on the sick person undertaking these obligations – if not, their illness is not regarded as legitimate and is seen as unfairly appropriating the sick role.

By suggesting that illness is just one of a number of forms of deviance that could be harmful to society, Parsons expands the idea of illness to include a social dimension. Being ill becomes not just a physical abnormality but also a social abnormality. Illness is then considered as deviant and dangerous to society and, as a result, must be controlled.

Parsons also notes that the sick role provides a way for society to swiftly deal with the deviance and bring people back to their normal pattern of functioning, which benefits society.

Criticisms of the Sick Role:

Many sociologists have highly criticized the concept of the sick role. For instance, the first criticism was that this theory only applies to acute illness and hence is not a useful concept when looking at chronic illnesses, where people are unwell for a long time with no apparent prospect of improvement and the obligation to get better as soon as possible simply cannot apply.

A second criticism is how Parsons assumes that the sick role occurs only when the doctor legitimates the illness. However, as per Eliot Freidson, a Professor of Sociology, before consulting a doctor, there is a complex set of lay-referrals, by which the means that the ill person will consult others close to them as to whether they might be ill and the significance of the symptoms. Only after this process will the person go to a doctor.

What do you think about the sick role concept? Please share your comments!







4 thoughts on “The Theory of the Sick Role”

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