Sick Role Theory in Sociology: Definition & Overview

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  • 0:01 Definition of Sick Role Theory
  • 2:14 Perspective on the Sick Role
  • 7:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

This lesson discusses sick role theory and explores the concepts associated with it. You will be able to imagine life with a particular disability and consider whether or not the concepts behind sick role theory are relevant today.

Definition of Sick Role Theory

Sick role theory, as described by researcher Talcott Parsons in 1951, is a way of explaining the particular rights and responsibilities of those who are ill. Since those who are diagnosed with a medical condition cannot always fulfill the same duties that a person in good health can, society adapts to this situation and allows for a reasonable amount of deviation from behavior that would be viewed as typical of a well person.

Parsons saw the sick role as a form of deviance, or going against societal expectations, because an ill person has different patterns of behavior than the norm. He argued that people are generally expected to be productive members of society. However, if an ill person is not able to carry out his or her usual duties, such as work at a job, go to school or care for family members, this deviance from the usual is positively sanctioned, or approved by the community or authority figures. For instance, if you don't show up for school, teachers and administrators will see this as deviant, but if it is because you are sick in bed, they will allow your absence.

For the deviance to be sanctioned, a medical expert, such as a doctor, must certify that a person is actually ill, a process that legitimates their illness. Legitimization is proof that the person is truly sick and in need of a more lenient set of expectations. This is the equivalent of a doctor's note that you could take to school to prove that you didn't simply skip classes to go to the movies.

Parsons describes two rights and two responsibilities that an ill person has: a patient has a right not to be blamed for her illness and a right to be given some leeway by others in regards to normal obligations. However, a patient has the responsibility to make getting well a priority and the responsibility to seek appropriate treatment for his or her condition. These rights and responsibilities may be in effect only during a certain period while a person is ill and so may be temporary. The specifics of these expectations will vary depending on the seriousness of an illness and how much the condition interferes with everyday life.

Perspective on the Sick Role

Is Parsons' research into the sick role from 1951 useful to us today? Sociology did gain new perspectives from Parsons' work because his sick role theory provided insight into an experience that affects everyone in society at some point in their life. Yet, would a person today find that his or her experience of being sick matches up to what Parsons described more than 60 years ago?

Imagine that you have a visual impairment that affects your ability to see objects in front of you to a significant degree. This condition has come on gradually and has worsened over time. According to medical experts, there is little you can do to improve your condition. Would Parsons' sick role theory be relevant to your experience?

One challenge with Parsons' theory is that it does not specifically apply to those with chronic conditions that are not likely to improve. In this circumstance, as a person with significant visual impairment, you cannot fulfill one of your two responsibilities that Parsons laid out. You cannot attempt to get well, since your condition is permanent and no further treatment available at this time will improve it. While you are able to follow the other responsibility of seeking out treatment and medical advice, you cannot be held accountable to improve your situation.

What about your rights? Do you have a right as a person with a visual impairment to be excused from the typical expectations of society? Some individuals with disabilities may receive payment from the government or from insurance because visual impairment places greater challenges on you to obtain income compared to someone without a disability. On the other hand, those in your life may also expect you to take advantage of opportunities and accommodations available through legal changes that have come into effect in the last 20 or more years. For instance, in 1990, George H.W. Bush signed the American Disabilities Act into law.

Parsons also saw those who were ill as relatively helpless, but we no longer hold this view as firmly in our society. Today, many believe that a person with a visual impairment can accomplish as much in a career and personal relationship as a person without an impairment because society is generally more inclusive of those with disabilities than in Parsons' time.

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