Sick role

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Sick role is a term used in medical sociology regarding sickness and the rights and obligations of the affected.[1] It is a concept created by American sociologist Talcott Parsons in 1951.[2]


Parsons was a functionalist sociologist, who argued that being sick means that the sufferer enters a role of 'sanctioned deviance'. This is because, from a functionalist perspective, a sick individual is not a productive member of society. Therefore this deviance needs to be policed, which is the role of the medical profession. Generally, Parsons argued that the best way to understand illness sociologically is to view it as a form of deviance which disturbs the social function of the society.

The general idea is that the individual who has fallen ill is not only physically sick, but now adheres to the specifically patterned social role of being sick. ‘Being Sick’ is not simply a ‘state of fact’ or ‘condition’, it contains within itself customary rights and obligations based on the social norms that surround it. The theory outlined three rights of a sick person and two obligations:

  • Rights:
    • The sick person is exempt from normal social roles
    • The sick person is not responsible for their condition
    • has right to be taken care of
  • Obligations:
    • The sick person should try to get well
    • The sick person should seek technically competent help and cooperate with the medical professional

There are three versions of sick role:

  1. Conditional
  2. Unconditionally legitimate
  3. Illegitimate role: condition that is stigmatized by others


  • Rejecting the sick role.
    • This model assumes that the individual voluntarily accepts the sick role.
    • Individual may not comply with expectations of the sick role, may not give up social obligations, may resist dependency, may avoid public sick role if their illness is stigmatised.
    • Individual may not accept 'passive patient' role.
  • Doctor Patient relationship.
    • Going to see doctor may be the end of a process of help seeking behaviour, Freidson (1970) discusses importance of 'lay referral system'- lay person consults significant lay groups first.
    • This model assumes 'ideal' patient and 'ideal' doctor roles See- Murcott (1981), Sacks (1967), Bloor & Horobin (1975).
    • Differential treatment of patient, and differential doctor patient relationship- variations depend on social class, gender and ethnicity. See- MacIntyre & Oldman (1984), Buchan & Richardson (1973), Sudnow (1967).
  • Blaming the sick.
    • 'Rights' do not always apply.
    • Sometimes individuals are held responsible for their illness, i.e. illness associated with sufferers lifestyle. (See Chalfont & Kurtz: 1971, on alcoholism).
    • In stigmatised illness sufferer is often not accepted as legitimately sick.
  • Chronic Illness.
    • Model fits acute illness (measles, appendicitis, relatively short term conditions).
    • Does not fit chronic/long-term/permanent illness as easily, getting well not an expectation with chronic conditions such as blindness, diabetes.
    • In chronic illness acting the sick role is less appropriate and less functional for both individual and social system.
    • Chronically ill patients are often encouraged to be independent.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Millon, Theodore; Paul H. Blaney; Roger D. Davis (1999). Oxford Textbook of Psychopathology. Oxford University Press US. pp. 446. ISBN 978-0-19-510307-6.
  2. ^ Parsons, Talcott (1951). The Social System. Glencoe, IL: The Free Press.

External links[edit]