The Sick Role

The Sick Role

The seminal work of Talcott Parsons (1966) helps explain the phenomenon of “the sick role.” In our society, a person is expected to have the symptoms viewed as illness confirmed by a member of the health care profession. In other words, the sick role must first be legitimately conferred on this person by the keepers of this privilege. You cannot legitimize your own illness and have your own diagnosis accepted by society at large. There is a legitimate procedure for the definition and sanctioning of the adoption of the sick role and it is funda- mental for both the social system and the sick individual. Thus, illness is not only a “condition” but also a social role. Parsons describes 4 main components of the sick role:

1. “The sick person is exempted from the performance of certain of his/ her normal social obligations.” An example is a student or worker who has a severe sore throat and decides that he or she does not want to go to classes or work. For this person to be exempted from the day’s activities, he or she must have this symptom validated by someone in the health care system, a provider who is either a physi- cian or a nurse practitioner. The claim of illness must be legitimized or socially defined and validated by a sanctioned provider of health care services.

2. “The sick person is also exempted from a certain type of responsi- bility for his/her own state.” For example, an ill person cannot be expected to control the situation or be spontaneously cured. The stu- dent or worker with the sore throat is expected to seek help and then to follow the advice of the attending physician or nurse in promoting recovery. The student or worker is not responsible for recovery except in a peripheral sense.

3. “The legitimization of the sick role is, however, only partial.” When you are sick, you are in an undesirable state and should recover and leave this state as rapidly as possible. The student’s or worker’s sore throat is acceptable only for a while. Beyond a reasonable amount of time—as determined by the physician or nurse, peers, and the fac- ulty or supervisors—legitimate absence from the classroom or work setting can no longer be claimed.

4. “Being sick, except in the mildest of cases, is being in need of help.” Bona fide help, as defined by the majority of American society and other Western countries, is the exclusive realm of the physician or

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nurse practitioner. A person seeking the help of the provider now not only bears the sick role but in addition takes on the role of patient. Patienthood carries with it a certain, prescribed set of responsibilities, some of which include compliance with a medical regimen, coop- eration with the health care provider, and the following of orders without asking too many questions, all of which lead to the illness experience.

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