Sociology Focus
Author: Stephanie Medley-Rath

The Sick Role Conflict

What are the norms of sickness? Are their certain expectations of people who are sick compared to those who are healthy? In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains what the sick role can teach us about other aspects of role theory.

Mother Taking Temperature Of Sick Daughter

Talcott Parsons identified the concept of the sick role in 1951. The sick role was developed out of role theory. Though the sick role may be outliving its original usefulness, it still can help illuminate the concepts of roles, role conflict, and role strain. Let me explain these concepts and then we’ll get back to the sick role.

Roles refer to the expectations associated with a particular status. For example, as a college professor, I am expected to come to class on time and teach my subject matter, that is, sociology. I am not expected to walk in late or not show up at all, nor am I expected to be able to answer questions related to physics.

Role conflict occurs when the expectations of different roles conflict with one another. For example, a working mother with a sick child. The expectations of the worker is that they go to work. The expectations of the mother is to care for the sick child. The expectations of the worker role and the the expectations of the mother of a sick child role conflict with one another. What is a working mother with a sick child to do? (Of course, someone else could take care of the sick child. But the reality, is that it often falls on the mother.)

Role strain happens when the expectations of a single role clash with one another. For example, college students are expected to think for themselves, yet regurgitate the text for an exam. As a student, have you ever been frustrated with your professors because you followed their instructions to the letter, but still failed to earn points because you did not dig deeper?

Alright, now that we know a little bit more about roles, role conflict and role strain, let’s focus a bit on the sick role.

The sick role has its own set of norms of expected behavior. The sick person

  • does not have to fulfill his or her normal roles.
  • should seek medical attention, do as the doctor says, and try to get well.
  • is not held accountable for her or his illness.

So how does the sick role work in the real world?

I have been experiencing a pesky cough for the last several weeks that has been interfering with my ability to talk. Yes, talk. How does a teacher who normally speaks, do her or his job with limited speaking ability? How did my experience as someone who was sick fit within Parson’s concept of the sick role?

Does Not Have to Fulfill Normal Roles

Unfortunately, my students do not care for instructors that cancel a lot of class meetings or resort to showing films for the bulk of the class time. Therefore, I went to class despite my cough and only modified my normal teaching plan by showing a movie once.

Seek Medical Attention and Try to Get Well

I delayed seeking medical attention. Medical attention involves co-pays. My past experience told me that the doctor would not be able to do much for my particular illness. It was only when my cough returned that I consulted with a medical doctor. Even though I did not seek medical attention until weeks into my cough, I did try to get well. I took over-the-counter cough medicine. I drank green tea like it was going out of style. I rested my voice when possible.

Illness is Not Your Fault

Individuals are not held responsible for his or her illness, but he or she is expected to try to get better. In this way, we are not at fault for the initial illness, but we are held somewhat responsible for getting better.

The Sick Role Conflict

I did not take any time off of work to take care of this illness. Why? My employer provides me with sick days for this very reason. Why did I choose not to use them?

My students want me to stay home and fulfill my sick role, yet at the same time, they want me in the classroom to fulfill my instructor role. Class meetings  (typically) can not be made up, so if I am not there, then they are potentially receiving less instruction than if I am there.

Aha! Role conflict! My role as a college instructor conflicts with my role as a sick person.

While treating my cough, I took cough drops. The wrapping on the cough drops included motivational messages such as:

  • “Don’t waste a precious minute.”
  • “The show must go on. Or work.”
  • “March forward!”
  • “Tough is your middle name.”

These phrases send the message that sickness is not a time when you are excused from your normal roles. Role conflict may exist between the sick role and worker role, but this medicine enables a person who is sick to still fulfill her or his worker role. Afterall, “the show must go on.”

Dig Deeper:

  1. Give an example of three different roles you fulfill. Give an example of both role strain and role conflict you have with the roles you fulfill.
  2. Have you ever been sick? Did you conform to the sick role? Why or why not?
  3. The author points out how the sick role conflicts with her role as a worker. Have you ever experienced role conflict with the sick role and another role you hold? Explain how you managed this conflict.
  4. Explain what the sick role is. How do you see the sick role evolving? What does the sick role mean today?
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