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What is the Sick Role?

Mary McMahon
By
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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In sociology, the “sick role” is a term used to describe the social behaviors exhibited both by people who are sick and the people around them. The term was coined by researcher Talcott Parsons in the early 1950s. Since then, a number of people have built on Parsons' work to explore the role played in society by people who are ill as well as the experiences of people who are sick.

Parsons viewed society as a system that stressed structure and order for functionality. People who are sick break the structure of society because they are not viewed as positive contributors. Unlike other types of deviants who contribute to a decline in social order, however, sick people may not necessarily want to be in the position they are in, and their position, according to Parsons, is generally not their fault. This creates the need for a social and behavioral structure that accommodates the “sanctioned deviance” of the sick.

The sick role theory states that people who are sick are subjected to social norms that state that they have both rights and obligations that they must fulfill. In the realm of rights, sick people are allowed to refrain from participating in events, work, social activities, and other aspects of society because of their illness. In addition, Parsons believed that, generally speaking, society did not hold people personally responsible for getting sick.

Being sick, however, also comes with obligations. People who are sick are expected to get better and also to work on getting better by going to the doctor, complying with medication regimens, and cooperating with treatment plans.

These social beliefs about illness and people who are ill can play out in interesting ways. For example, sometimes people are held responsible for their health condition and, because they violate the sick role by being personally responsible, they may be ostracized. This is seen, for example, in patients with lung cancer, who are often assumed to have developed the disease because they smoked. Likewise, people who do not cooperate with treatment plans may be criticized for failing to fulfill their duties to get better.

Being sick can, in fact, come with loaded social responsibilities and burdens. The sick role can also be involved in social perceptions of disability and disabled persons. For example, many people believe that people with mental illness should adhere to prescribed medications in order to be functional members of society or to be entitled to receive benefits, an illustration of how perceptions of this role influence the way people view other members of society.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon169165 — On Apr 20, 2011

Don't know anything about Hypochondria and Münchausen, but do they (or are they capable of) follow[ing] instructions given by authority? The concept of sick role presumes ability of the sick to play sick, you know. Besides, you don't even have to go so far to bring extreme cases if you want stir up the discussion a bit.

Dental patients do not fit in the Parsons' illustration of the sick -- and yes, outdated. Nonetheless, I think bringing social package into the analysis of sickness was pretty useful if you think about construction of social insurance, patients' rights, etc. Its relevance in contemporary context is in doubt, but the concept already served its role in 50~70's, and I assume not too many take it as a wholesome concept or anything.

By galen84basc — On Dec 24, 2010

So how do you think that Parsons' view would take into consideration those with hypochondria or Münchausen syndrome?

Just FYI, for those of you who might not know, hypochondria is always thinking that you are sick, and Münchausen is a syndrome in which you pretend to be sick or cause yourself to get sick in order to get attention.

Or, if you really wanted to mix things up, then you could think about how Parsons would deal with Münchausen by proxy, where you cause other people to get sick so that you can have the attention of caring for them.

How do you all think that these things would fit in with the "sick role"? Would they be the ultimate "deviants" since they are not actually sick but still not playing their appropriate role as a human, or would they be excused for reasons of mental illness, or what?

By musicshaman — On Dec 23, 2010

I think that this article is really interesting because it brings to the forefront of your mind how people treat the so called "weaker" members of society, say the sick or elderly.

In fact, you really could just replace sick with elderly and get the same attitude from a lot of people. And I suppose from a purely utilitarian point of view, if you only view humans as machines and in terms of what that machine can contribute to human consumption, then sure, the sick or elderly aren't the top priority.

However, if you consider other factors like societal and cultural contributions, then things start to look a little different. And even if you insist on looking at things from a purely utilitarian point of view, the argument could be made that both the elderly and the sick can serve as examples of what happens to the human body under certain circumstances, or that they can be useful for understanding how the body works.

I don't personally believe in a utilitarian point of view, but it does make you think about how the world would be if people did actually act according to a purely utilitarian view like that. Do you think it would make us a better or worse society?

By yournamehere — On Dec 21, 2010

Wow. This was a really interesting article. I had never really considered before the role of say, the sick or elderly in society quite like that.

I think that a lot of Parsons' argument falls apart though if you don't ascribe to a purely utilitarian view of society. I guess what I'm saying is, it would be interesting to judge the "deviance" of the sick from other points of view, since what Parsons seems to me to be saying is that essentially everyone is like a machine, and when that machine "breaks down," i.e. gets sick, then we have to have a reason to sanction that.

What if we looked at it from a different point of view though, as if rather than a "break down," then being sick could be "scheduled maintenance." Of course you can't really schedule getting sick, but it does lead to some interesting trains of thought...

Thanks for the article, wisegeek!

By FernValley — On Nov 27, 2010

I'm interested to see how hypochondria would fit into this idea. Presuming that the "sick role" theory really is applicable, and that people view the sick as fulfilling a societal space, then it makes sense that there are parts of the "sick role" which might subconsciously appeal to hypochondriacs, like the ability to avoid social interaction.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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