sick role

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sick role


patient role

sickness viewed as a special status and as the basis of social identity, and distinguished from illness as a biomedical category.

The concept originated from PARSONS’ (1951) discussion of the role of medicine in industrial societies and describes a form of socially sanctioned deviance possessing the following characteristics:

  1. the sick person is exempted from normal social responsibilities;
  2. the sick person cannot be expected to look after himself or herself;
  3. the sick person is expected to desire a return to normality;
  4. the sick person is expected to seek competent professional help.

According to Parsons, being sick interferes with normal social responsibilities and permits exemption from them. Consequently it may sometimes also be a status desired by those unwilling to meet their social obligations. Medicine therefore can be seen as having the function of social control in addition to a therapeutic one. It deters malingerers and promotes an awareness of social obligation among the sick.

Parsons’ formulation has been subjected to much criticism on empirical and theoretical grounds. Nevertheless, the 'sick role’ continues to be used as a sensitizing and organizing concept for empirical studies of interaction in clinical settings by the SOCIOLOGY OF HEALTH AND MEDICINE. See also SYMPTOM ICEBERG, TRIVIAL CONSULTATION.

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