Source: Kelly Sikkema

Written a month ago for another sociological platform, removed during the shortening process.

The sociological understanding of mental health and illness can be traced through the work of a number of theorists. This writing will focus on work conducted in 1951 by Talcott Parsons into the sick role. To begin, it must be understood that Parsons is a functionalist and thereby see’s the world through a lens where each institution works as though it is in the body. So, education the lungs, healthcare the liver, media as your intestines. Each piece working together to support one another. One part goes wrong or experiences illness? Ramifications will be felt in other areas.

For Parsons, illness was a form of deviant behaviour, as sick individuals were unable to perform their social roles. Yikes, and this is supposed to be the functionalist perspective.

The sick individual is exempt from performing social roles that able individuals are expected to continue with. Genuine illness is also seen as beyond the ill person’s control, allowing the individual to garner greater sympathy. Yes, Parsons used the word sympathy, not I.

Parsons called for strict regulation of the sick role, in which the doctor and patient clearly understood their rights and obligations. The ill person has an obligation to get ‘well’ as soon as possible, following the doctor’s orders. Parsons in this respect was hugely influenced by Sigmund Freud and his beliefs on the ideal doctor-patient relationship.

Other articles which feature Functionalist theory

Robert K. Merton: Strain Theory

The British feminist Ann Oakley (1974) criticised Parson’s view that the sick person was exempt from having to perform social roles. She pointed to women and mothers who were often times expected to still perform social roles. What do you think?

Personally, do you feel people have an obligation to get better or to even accept medical treatment. If the sick role is deviant, what does that say about those with terminal illnesses. Could parsons, who wrote in the 20th century now be outdated? Was he writing from a position of privilege? Which other theories on illness are better applicable?

I potentially may never write on this again, so best of luck thinking, writing and researching!

By Shaneka Knight

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