John Burnham “The Death of the Sick Role: A Problem in Healthcare, Sociology, History, Anthropology, Medicine,and Public Policy at the Turn of the 21st Century"


Location: 209 DeBartolo

In the middle of the twentieth century, everybody knew what it was to be sick. A person felt bad, stopped regular life routines, and went to the doctor. Sociologists called this universal behavior “taking the sick role.” Several decades later, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, it was becoming more and more difficult to take a sick role. Social norms had changed. Medicine had changed.

In this paper I shall explain what happened during this transformation, particularly by considering what shifted in the doctor-patient encounter and by exploring why sociologists stopped using the idea of the sick role. Historians and anthropologists may still find the sick role useful. But the fact that the role does not fit current reality suggests that an epochal change is taking place in healthcare.

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