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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.