Culture, the ‘sick role’ and the consumption of health



This paper revisits Parsons's conception of the ‘sick role’ and examines the relevance of his writings on the cultural understanding of sickness to the consumption of health in the contemporary era. In terms of current developments, I focus on the development of pro-active approaches towards the healthy body, and the growth of ‘information rich’ consumers of health care. These have become prominent themes in sociology, and while Parsons's writings are usually viewed as anachronistic I argue they remain highly pertinent to understanding the emergence of informed, body conscious lay people. If Parsons's analysis of health is more relevant to current circumstances than many critics assume, however, it is not unproblematic. The residual categories associated with the sick role obscure the continued utility of his work on the general cultural values informing health care. It is Parsons's analysis of these values, I suggest, that needs rescuing from restricted understandings of the sick role and highlighting as an important resource for contemporary theorists.