Discuss whether you think a person with any of the things named or doing any of the things named could be seen as ill or not.




Someone with lung cancer. Someone who has cut their finger whilst cooking. A student with a hangover. An alcoholic. Someone with a migraine. Someone talking to themselves whilst shopping in a supermarket. A pregnant woman. An older person who is occasionally forgetful. Someone who is overweight. Someone addicted to gambling.

Functionalist theory

Task: What rights do you think a person who is sick may have?

Functionalist explanation

An essential starting point as far as functionalism is concerned is the work of Parsons.

Parsons argued that people who are or who become sick have certain rights and obligations. He argued being sick was to be deviant and that what society needs to be fully functioning is a healthy population. He argued that society needed regulations and people, doctors, who could exercise some control over those who become sick in order to prevent people from withdrawing from their social roles.

He argued that the rights and obligations people have are inextricably linked.

Parsons argued that a person who is sick has two rights:

  1. They have the right not to work and not to carry out their normal social activities.
  2. They have the right to seek help from a medical professional and not to be blamed for their illness.

Once a person becomes ill they also have obligations

Task: What rights do you think a person who is sick may have?

  1. To seek medical advice in order to get better as soon as possible and therefore be able to return to their normal social roles such as work.
  2. To follow the advice given in order to try to get better.

Parsons argued that unless the person who is sick agrees to do the above their sickness may not be taken seriously, it may not be legitimated.

Marxist theory – analyse the video below

Task: In what ways does Harry Smith argue the NHS is good for everyone?

Marxist explanations

Like functionalism Marxism is also a structural explanation of society.

Marxists argue that the NHS, free at the point of access, is good for all members of society both those who are ill and employers who need a healthy workforce.

Marxists focus on a number of aspects of health

  1. The NHS

Harry Leslie Smith born in 1923

Some Marxists argue, as Harry Smith does, that the NHS was a victory for the working class. For the first time they could go to the doctors without worrying about how to pay for a visit to the GP or for paying for treatment. It would eradicate health inequalities.

Interactionist theory

Task: In what ways could you apply labelling theory to health and disability?
Write a detailed paragraph and identify relevant names.

Interactionist explanations

Interactionists are interested in the way that individuals shape society. They are interested in the meanings that people attach to their actions and to the actions of others. As far as health and disability is concerned this means they are interested in the ways in which doctors and patients interact. In terms of this interaction they are interested in the ways in which doctors attempt to impose their views onto patients and conversely the ways in which patients might at times resist the diagnosis and advice they are being given. They are also interested in ways in which patients try to get doctors to listen to them.

Most of the research by interactionists in the field of health and disability has been small scale qualitative research much of which has been focussed on the doctor patient relationship.

A key aspect of interactionism is labelling.

Labelling may occur when a patient is diagnosed or it may be by friends and family. Although people may attempt to resist the label it is often difficult particularly when an illness is stigmatised. Link to the work of Goffman.

Look up the work of Rosenhan et al regarding the difficulty of resisting labelling once admitted to a psychiatric hospital. Also watch 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest'.

Patients admitted to general wards who try to resist the hospital regime may also find themselves labelled as ‘non-compliant’.

Using the following references, understand their views on health and illness and then answer the question

  • Becker – labelling theory
  • Goffman – stigma and stigmatisation of disability
  • Scambler – research on women and their visits to the doctor
  • Tesh – research on RSI and the differing interpretations of RSI by employers, unions and psychiatrists/doctors.
  1. How do you think statistics on health might be socially constructed? In what ways might a patient contribute to the social construction of morbidity statistics?

Feminists theory




Patriarchy Social control The body Gender relations The gendered nature of power Medicalisation Women as carers

Task: Evaluate feminist explanations of health and illness. (40marks)

Go to the sample assessment materials to look at the generic mark scheme first. Consider what you need to do to access the top mark bands.

Once you have written the essay high-light the evaluative words you have used, then underline relevant sociologists and concepts you have used.

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Postmodernism theory

Task: List as many complementary treatments as you can.

Postmodern explanations

Postmodernists argue it is not possible to explain health and disability with metatheories such as functionalism or Marxism.

They argue that the bio-medical model of health cannot explain all causes of ill health and disability. Foucault for example said there is no objective reality or truth.

Postmodernists argue that complementary medicines can legitimately exist alongside the bio-medical model. Two or more explanations which compete. They argue that doctors generally support the bio-medical view of health and illness but this can be challenged by alternative treatments and also by patients who may have more knowledge about their condition than some doctors for example people with ME.