Talcott Parsons: functionals and sick role


  • 1902-1979
  • The rise of Fascism
  • Threat of revolution
  • Great Depression
  • A critical social theorist?
  • descent from durkhiem: 
  • D argued all moral systems onstitute a function of the social system - every society developes a morality necessary for its function. 
  • P took from D was that social integration is organised around a core of common normas and values. 
  • "core of society, as a system, is parrerned normative order through which the ife of a population collectively organise" (Parson 1961)
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  • societies are wholes, collection of interrelated parts. Ech part has meaning only in relation to the whole, perforing a function within the system (socitey)
  • SOCIAL INTEGRATION : is achieve through value consensus - pervasive set of principles that legitimate the exisiting social, economic and political structure.
  • INTEGRATION: = never perfect - always be "malintegration' - deviance, tensions and strains. 
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Parsonian Analysis of Social System - AGIL

  • daptation - the way in which the system adpats to its environment - modifying or controlling it.
  • oal - way in which the system methodologically mobilises resources to pursue certain goals
  • ntegration - way in which system ensures solidarity - maintance of a cohesive whole
  • atency - way in which the sysrem maintains its value and belief systems.
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AGIL as a Social Fractal:

  • Political system of a society (today) 
  • Parson would argue its a subsystem concerned with goal attainment - therefore a system itself can be analysed by using AGIL
  • Bureaucracy concerned with ADAPTAIONS
  • Political leadership concerned with GOAL attainment
  • Legislature and Judiciary used to ensure INTEGRATION
  • constituion of credo of political system ensures LATENCY (pattern maintenance)  
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Functionalist Hegemony:

  • by 1950 functionalism had become the dominant social theory in USA.
  • some went as far to say ALL sociologist were functionalist.
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Critics of Functionalism:

  • functionalism, with its emphasis on consensus, is neglectful of the unequal distribution of power
  • Functionalism, with its emphasis on equilibrium, is unable to adequately theorise social change. 
  • Its a politically conservative social theory, reflecting the dominant values of American capitalism
  • Gouldner summarised these arguemnts when he said that functionlism is "ideologically congenial to those who have more to lose"
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Functionaism & Social change:

  • Parsons, social change is an evolutionary, cultural process. 
  • Deviance, tensions, and strains that arise from, and increasingly differentiated society, tend to be institutionalised, or otherside resolve, in the direction of social integration and equilibrium. 
  • "the massive emergence of the professional complex, not the special status of capitalistic or socialistic modes of organisaiton, is the crucial structural development in 20th centruy society: (parson 1968) 
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Sociology of Professions:

  • Functionalists are intereestred in 'the professions' as the role that norms and values played in the conduct of their members.
  • Professionals, P argues are governed by norms of colective orientation are highly socialised into codes of ethical behaviour, and pursue rewards of a symbolic nature.
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  • refers to the set of rights and obligationsthat surround ilness and shape the behaviour of doctos and patients. 
  • parsons key insight was that 'being sick' is not simplpe physiological.
  • Being sick - sick role, is cultural phenomenon, involiving institutionalised expectations and a corresponding set of sanctions - its socially as well as biologically altered state. 
  • its temporary, medically sanctioned form of 'deviant' behaviour.
  • 3 principle normative elements: 
  • 1) Exemption and personal responsibility for illness
  • 2) Permission to withdraw from many duties and commitments
  • 3) Obligation to seek medical help and become a 'patient' 
  • sick tole furthers social control - regualtion by producing and enforcing definition of sickness.
  • psychological illness may stem from social pressures. - sick role can stop work pressure, stop everyday pressures and stop social responsibilites.


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Criticism of Sick Role:

  • Neglects an analysis of differences in the power between the doctor and the patient
  • does not consider the multiple sources of conflict between the doctor and the patient
  • is an idealised model that does not match existing 'illness behaviours' 
  • sick role is a temporary state - chronic illness is not.
  • people with chronic illness find themselves in positions where they are expected to comply with the obligations of the sick role while maintaining some aspets of their normal social roles. (Gallagher 1976)
  • BLOOR AND HOROBIN (1975) - Not all forms of illness lead to the adoption of the sick role - in many cases being ill does not need the sanction of a doctor. 
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Illness Behaviour:

  • preventative health behaviour - what we do to prevent ourselves from becoming ill.
  • illness behaviour - what we do after becoming unwell, but befroe we seek 'technically competent' help (doctors) and enter the sick role. 
  • activities
  • exercise
  • eat healthy
  • leisure 
  • etc. 
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key Ideads

  • functonalism is concerned with the way in which norms and values hold society togehter
  • the sick role is an example of normative system that works to maintain social order.
  • it does this by lefitimating the 'deviance' of the social disruption that results from illness
  • one of parsons key insights was that being sick is a social as well as biological phenomenon
  • however been subject to criticism and many think the sick role is unable to explain the changing nature of health and illness behaviour
  • nevertheless and investigation of the moral economy of health and illness behaviours is still fruitful sociological project.
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