The functionalist perspective holds that society is made up of smaller facets which work together to ensure there is general stability and solidarity (Macionis, 2011). The society is regarded as an organism with constituent parts such as customs, norms, traditions and institutions. These work together to ensure that society functions well. Health and illness are defined by norms and traditions in terms of the roles they play in the functioning of society. There are recognized institutions, such as health facilities and physicians, which are charged with taking care of health and wellness issues. This paper discusses the role of health and illness in the functionalist perspective and the major weaknesses of its assumptions.
The Role of Health and Illness in Functionalism
Persons who are ill are exempted from their normal roles in social life, for the duration of their illness. Health physicians have the dual role of determining that the person is ill, and helping such a person to get better (Young, 2004). Without proof from a physician that the person is really ill, society may assume that such a person is just a malingerer trying to avoid work. Meanwhile, the role of the ill person is to get well, so he is exempted from normal work during such a period.
Weaknesses of the Perspective
Several criticisms have been leveled at the simplistic approach of functionalism to societal issues. One of the things the theory ignores is the constant conflicts that define the history and formation of society (Young, 2004). On the issue of health for instance, the role of the sick persons tends to diminish with prolonged illness. There is thus no space in this theory for persons with terminal illnesses or incurable conditions. The issue of affordability of health care also severely dents this neat functionalist perspective. When the person who is ill cannot access or afford healthcare, then the efficacy of the whole theory collapses.
The functionalist perspective views society as an organic whole made up of functional parts. The place of health and illness in this theory is seen in terms of the norms that define an ill person, and the role of healthcare in identifying the illness and helping the sick person to get well. The theory fails to account for conflicts that develop when the ill person has an illness that is incurable, and when he cannot afford or access healthcare.
Macionis, J. (2011). Sociology (7th Ed). Gerber, L. M. (Ed.). Toronto, Canada: Pearson Prentice Hall.
Young, J. T. (2004). Illness Behaviour: A selective review and synthesis. Sociology of Health &
Illness, 26(1), 1–31.