The sick role flow chart

Sick Role-Definition, Theory, Examples & Behavior


A sick role is a social role that provides certain rights, duties, and behaviors for those suffering from an illness. It is a person’s role in society, which is defined by their health condition. The sick role can be divided into two parts:

Sickness behavior is the set of actions and attitudes expected from someone who is sick, while the sick role describes a set of rights, duties, and behaviors that people are entitled to once they are sick.

Role orientation describes how people think and feel about their roles and can affect social behavior and interactions. Role conflict is when a person is faced with having to fulfill two or more roles that conflict. Role strain happens when a person has too many roles and does not have the time or resources to fulfill them.

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The Sick Role Theory

Talcott Parsons has described the sick role as a part of his general action theory. He identified both the sick role and the healthy role. He said that choosing either a sick or a healthy role is integral in maintaining equilibrium between individual wants and societal norms.

Parsons argued that it was important for people to take a break from society to get well and return to their normal societal obligations. Parsons described the public sick role as freedom from responsibility and the healthy role as freedom from constraint (in a medical sense).

Three attributes define the sick role:

  1. The person must be physically sick, suffering from an illness or injury which a health care provider has diagnosed.
  2. The sick person must accept their illness and, as far as possible, the doctor’s treatment and medical care.
  3. The person must not be currently performing their normal societal obligations or enjoying their everyday life as usual.

Talcott Parsons, sick role theory, and general action theory are three things that are related. Parsons had a strong influence on the sociological theories- role theory and social behaviorism. This can be seen in his work on the sick role and how it is a function of society. According to this theory, there are two types of action systems:

  1. Normal action: This system is the normal functioning of society.
  2. Role-playing: There are explicit systems of symbols and rules to guide behavior in this system. Role-playing can be seen in many types of social situations, for example, playing the role of a doctor or a patient.

According to Parson, the sick person has rights and obligations. The rights include:

  • The right to be taken care of by others.
  • A right to a reduction in social obligations.
  • The right to financial support from insurance or welfare (in some cases).

The obligations include:

  • Be truthful about the state of their health.
  • Seek medical treatment and follow a doctor’s advice regarding the treatment of their illness.
  • Confine their activities to those that are compatible with the state of their health.

The obligations are not always fulfilled. The sick person may stop adhering to them to get well faster or not be compatible with their work or social obligations. In this sense, the sick person can benefit from not adhering to their obligations, but it is not their choice. They will also not be held accountable for any of their obligations.

There is also the possibility that a person with an illness may not stop adhering to their obligations because they feel that it is the right thing to do.

People in society have mixed views on whether or not it is appropriate for someone who has an illness to continue working or fulfilling social obligations. There’s also a conflict as to whether it is suitable for someone who has an illness to go on living their life in a normal way and resist dependency.

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Versions of the Sick Role

There are three sick role versions, namely conditional, unconditional legitimate, and Illegitimate.

Conditional Version

This version of the sick role is when a person can only receive help and care if they fulfill certain obligations. If these obligations are not fulfilled, then the person does not receive support and care.

To receive the conditional sick role, one must have an illness that is physical or mental in origin. Other requirements include the following:

Unconditional Legitimate (or Entitlement) Version

This version of the sick role is when the ill person receives help and care from society without fulfilling any conditions. They are allowed to receive the benefits of the sick role regardless of whether they fulfill certain obligations.

To receive the Unconditional legitimate sick role, one must have an illness that is physical or mental in origin. Other requirements include the following:

  • The person must have a medical diagnosis for their illness.
  • In some instances, the person must believe that they have an illness and receive professional treatment for it and take their medicine.
  • The individual must be fully capable of continuing their everyday life.
  • The person must be receiving opposition from those around them that prevents them from continuing as they would normally.

Unconditional sick roles are much more common in western society than conditional sick roles.

Illegitimate Version

This version of the sick role is a combination of both the conditional and unconditional sick roles. People can receive help and care from society if they fulfill certain conditions, but these conditions are not required. This version of the sick role is also called the pseudo-sick role.

The Sick Role Behavior

Cooley explains that the sick role behavior involves a certain type of conduct that sick people are expected to display. Below are certain expectations placed on the ill person:

  • An ideal situation is where the sick individual voluntarily accepts to be cared for and looked after by others.
  • Someone who has fallen ill must also accept that they are the ones who have been given a sick role.
  • Sick individuals are also expected to feel moody, have a decreased capacity for work, and be dependent.
  • Sick people are also expected to discuss their illness and the type of treatment they receive with doctors, nurses, and family members. This discussion gives the responsible caregivers a general idea of what they should do.
  • Sick individuals must also follow the house rules that their family sets up.
  • The sick person is expected not to complain too often, and they must not be unreasonable.

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Sick Individuals and Their Rights

One advantage of receiving the sick role is that sick people are given certain rights by society. These rights include the following:

  • The right to receive care and support from others.
  • The ill person is also given the right to be protected from problems that they cannot control.
  • The sick individual also has the right to explain their illness as long as this does not violate confidentiality.
  • The sick person is also given the right not to be burdened with certain duties. The only exception occurs if this would place unnecessary stress on the sick person.
  • The sick individual is also given the right to make decisions about their treatment. They can refuse certain treatments if they feel that they will not make a difference.

Medical Sociology

It is a branch of sociology that focuses on how illnesses and diseases are socially constructed. Some medical sociologists believe that certain individual factors such as lifestyle choices, family history, or psychological problems can play a role in developing an illness.

It is believed that the medical profession plays a significant role in the construction of the sick role, and one of its primary responsibilities is to take care of those who are suffering from an illness. It is also argued that the medical profession plays a role in the legitimization of illnesses and diseases.

The sick role can be seen when looking at genders, as it is believed that women are more likely than men to receive the sick role. This can be explained by looking at some dominant social norms, such as those that say that women tend to be more emotional and weaker. It is also believed that receiving the sick role has social effects on the individual.

The Sick Role from a Functionalist Perspective Point of View

From a functionalist point of view, the sick role is created and legitimized by those with superior social status. They are given the duty of caring for those who suffer from different illnesses and diseases.

Sick people are seen as being irresponsible and unable to perform their daily activities. They are also seen as being less competent when compared to healthy people.

The Sick Role from a Conflict Perspective Point of View

From a conflict perspective, the sick role is seen as one result of internal disagreements and conflicts, leading to new social norms. It is also said that the sick role is a socially created illness that can be used to control certain groups of people.

A sick individual is believed to be a less productive member of society. It is also thought that a sick role leads to discrimination against those socially constructed as being sick.

Law and the Sick Role

The idea of the sick role also carries over to the legal system. The courts must determine whether a person is legitimate for particular rights such as incapacity or disability benefits.

In cases where sick people are expected to do certain activities for themselves, the courts will determine whether these tasks are reasonable expectations under the circumstances.

When sick people are paid wages for work, the courts will determine whether they can still be expected to do the job they were hired to do.

In employees who have a legal right to sick pay, the courts will determine whether the illness is legitimate.

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Other Uses of the Sick Role Theory

The sick role theory can also be used in different contexts such as mental health, adolescence, and pregnancy.

The mental health context regards the patient’s rights to refuse specific treatments or therapies. These rights include whether a therapist has the authority to contact the patient’s family members and the right to confidentiality.

In adolescence, the sick role is commonly applied to teenagers who are trying to deal with peer pressure.

In pregnancy, the sick role theory is applied when determining whether a pregnant woman can suffer from depression or other mental disorders which result from the pregnancy.

The sick role theory can also be applied to other social contexts such as child care, teaching, and occupational therapy.

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The sick role theory is considered to be an essential part of understanding the patient-doctor relationship. Sick people are given certain rights by society, including receiving support from others and not being burdened with certain duties. This leads to a lack of feeling shame or embarrassment as well as social disapproval.

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