Sociological Theory/Role Theory

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Theory[edit | edit source]

Role Theory proposed that human behavior is guided by expectations held both by the individual and by other people. The expectations correspond to different roles individuals perform or enact in their daily lives, such as secretary, father, or friend. For instance, most people hold pre-conceived notions of the role expectations of a secretary, which might include: answering phones, making and managing appointments, filing paperwork, and typing memos. These role expectations would not be expected of a professional soccer player...

Individuals generally have and manage many roles. Roles consist of a set of rules or norms that function as plans or blueprints to guide behavior. Roles specify what goals should be pursued, what tasks must be accomplished, and what performances are required in a given scenario or situation. Role theory holds that a substantial proportion of observable, day-to-day social behavior is simply persons carrying out their roles, much as actors carry out their roles on the stage or ballplayers theirs on the field. Role theory is, in fact, predictive. It implies that if we have information about the role expectations for a specified position (e.g., sister, fireman, sex worker), a significant portion of the behavior of the persons occupying that position can be predicted.

What's more, role theory also argues that in order to change behavior it is necessary to change roles; roles correspond to behaviors and vice versa. In addition to heavily influencing behavior, roles influence beliefs and attitudes; individuals will change their beliefs and attitudes to correspond with their roles. For instance, someone over-looked for a promotion to a managerial position in a company may change their beliefs about the benefits of management by convincing him/herself that they didn't want the additional responsibility that would have accompanied the position.

Many role theorists see Role Theory as one of the most compelling theories bridging individual behavior and social structure. Roles, which are in part dictated by social structure and in part by social interactions (see the two approaches outlined below), guide the behavior of the individual. The individual, in turn, influences the norms, expectations, and behaviors associated with roles. The understanding is reciprocal and didactic.

Structural-Functional Perspective[edit | edit source]

The functionalist approach sees a role as the set of expectations that society places on an individual. By unspoken consensus, certain behaviours are deemed appropriate and others inappropriate. For example, it is appropriate for a doctor to dress fairly conservatively, ask a series of personal questions about one's health, touch one in ways that would normally be forbidden, write prescriptions, and show more concern for the personal well-being of their clients. Electricians or shopkeepers may also show concern for the well-being of their clients, but if they start touching their clients, especially where doctors are allowed to touch, they'll get in trouble; they will have stepped outside of the norms associated with their roles.

In the functionalist conception, role is one of the important ways in which individual activity is socially regulated: roles create regular patterns of behaviour and thus a measure of predictability, which not only allows individuals to function effectively because they know what to expect of others, but also makes it possible for the sociologist to make generalisations about society. Collectively, a group of interlocking roles creates a social institution: the institution of law, for example, can be seen as the combination of many roles, including: police officer, judge, criminal, and victim.

Roles, in the functionalist perspective, are relatively inflexible and are more-or-less universally agreed upon. Although it is recognised that different roles interact (teacher and student), and that roles are usually defined in relation to other roles (doctor and patient or mother and child), the functionalist approach has great difficulty in accounting for variability and flexibility of roles and finds it difficult to account for the vast differences in the way that individuals conceive different roles. Taken to extremes, the functionalist approach results in role becoming a set of static, semi-global expectations laid down by a unified, amorphous society. The distinction between role and norm (or culture) thus becomes sterile.

The functionalist approach has been criticized for its static understanding of roles. Even so, it remains a fundamental concept which is still taught in most introductory courses and is still regarded as important.

Interestingly, this conception has crossed over from academic discourse into popular use. It has become commonplace to speak of particular roles as if they were indeed fixed, agreed upon by all, and uncontroversial (e.g., the role of the teacher or a parent's role). This everyday usage nearly always employs role in a normative way, to imply that this is the proper behaviour for a teacher or a parent, or even for an entire institution.

Interactionist Perspective[edit | edit source]

The interactionist definition of role is more fluid and subtle than the functionalist perspective. A role, in this conception, is not fixed or prescribed but something that is constantly negotiated between individuals.

One of the ways Mead explained the idea of roles was by using a development model for children. According to Mead, children adopt roles in the development of a self. In so doing, they pass through three stages:

  1. preparatory stage - meaningless imitation by the infant; assumes roles but doesn't understand what they are
  2. play stage - actual playing of roles occurs; but no unified conception of self
  3. game stage - completion stage of self; child finds himself; must respond to simultaneous roles; the individual can act with a certain amount of consistency in a variety of situations because he/she acts in accordance with a generalized set of expectations and definitions he/she has internalized

Adults, of course, are beyond the game stage, but continue to adopt roles and adapt them through interpersonal interactions. This can be most easily seen in encounters where there is considerable ambiguity. For instance, let's assume person X has a friend who is also a lawyer; we'll call him Y. If X approaches Y as a friend but then asks for legal advice, this forces Y to either switch roles completely or merge the roles temporarily. Until Y decides on his course of action, role ambiguity will exist.

" A person should be physically, socially and spiritually strong".

Additional Approaches[edit | edit source]

  • structural - little attention given to norms; attention is focused on social structures conceived as stable organizations of sets of persons (called social positions or statuses) who share the same, patterned behaviors (roles)
  • organization - focuses on social systems that are preplanned, task-oriented, and hierarchical; roles in such organizations are assumed to be associated with identified social positions and to be generated by normative expectations
  • cognitive role theory - focuses on relationships between role expectations and behavior

(from Biddle 1986)

Propositions[edit | edit source]

Role Theory includes the following propositions:

  1. people spend much of their lives participating as members of groups and organizations
  2. within these groups, people occupy distinct positions
  3. each of these positions entails a role, which is a set of functions performed by the person for the group
  4. groups often formalize role expectations as norms or even codified rules, which include what rewards will result when roles are successfully performed and what punishments will result when roles are not successfully performed
  5. individuals usually carry out their roles and perform in accordance with prevailing norms; in other words, role theory assumes that people are primarily conformists who try to live up to the norms that accompany their roles
  6. group members check each individual's performance to determine whether it conforms with the norms; the anticipation that others will apply sanctions ensures role performance

Extensions of the Theory[edit | edit source]

Role Theory has been a fruitful approach to understanding humans and society. As a result, various derivatives and additional concepts have developed.

Role Confusion[edit | edit source]

Role confusion is a situation where an individual has trouble determining which role he/she should assume. For example, if a graduate student were to attend a department party at a professor's home, the student may find it difficult to determine if he/she should act as a student toward the professor, exhibiting deference or respect, or as a friend or associate, showing collegiality and familiarity.

Role Conflict[edit | edit source]

Role Conflict results when an individual encounters tensions as the result of incompatible roles. For instance, a mother who is employed full-time may experience role conflict because of the norms that are associated with the two roles she has. She may be expected to spend a great deal of time taking care of her children while simultaneously trying to advance her career.

Role Strain[edit | edit source]

Role Strain refers to the felt difficulty in fulfilling role obligations. In contrast to role conflict, where tension is felt between two competing roles, the tension in role strain comes from just one role. Returning to the example of a mother, if she were to find that she is unable to fulfill her obligations as defined by, say, an overly demanding spouse (or religion, or child), she would experience role strain. The role expectations may be beyond what she is able to achieve or may push her to the limits of her abilities.

Role Distance[edit | edit source]

Role Distance is the effectively expressed pointed separateness between the individual and his putative role. The individual is not denying the role but the virtual self that is implied in the role for all accepting performers. The concept of role distance provides a sociological means of dealing with one type of divergence between obligation and actual performance. For example, the maturing adolescent who is forced to ride a merry-go-round may display role distance by acting as though the ride does not challenge her physical abilities or frighten her. This may be displayed by riding backwards or leaning dangerously from her horse.

Immediate audiences figure very directly in the display of role distance; actors need an audience or a co-conspirator for role distancing to work. There are two ways of establishing role distance:

  1. isolating one's self from the contamination of the situation, which can be displayed through indifference (e.g., a waiter saying, "I'm just doing this to put myself through college.")
  2. joking about the situation (e.g., the young merry-go-round rider saying, "I can do this with my eyes closed.")

It is often possible to determine incidents in which role distance might be displayed solely on the grounds of the performers' gross age-sex characteristics. A seventeen year-old boy riding a merry-go-round (especially with peers) will likely display significant role distance.

Role Embracement[edit | edit source]

Role Embracement refers to the complete adoption of a role. When a role is truly embraced, the self disappears completely into the role. Three things seem to be involved in the earnestness with which people assume roles or the degree to which they embrace a role:

  1. an admitted or expressed attachment to the role
  2. a demonstration of qualifications and capacities for performing it
  3. an active engagement or spontaneous involvement in the role activity at hand, that is, a visible investment of attention and muscular effort

Limitations[edit | edit source]

Role theory has a hard time explaining social deviance when it does not correspond to a pre-specified role. For instance, the behavior of someone who adopts the role of bank robber can be predicted - she will rob banks. But if a bank teller simply begins handing out cash to random people, role theory would be unable to explain why (though role conflict could be one possible answer; the teller might have taken the job wanting to be a modern day Robin Hood).

Another limitation of role theory is that it does not and cannot explain how role expectations came to be what they are. Role theory has no explanation for why it is expected of male soldiers to cut their hair short, but it could predict with a high degree of accuracy that if someone is a male soldier they will have short hair. Additionally, role theory does not explain when and how role expectations change.


Notes[edit | edit source]

from Batson, Schoenrade, and Ventis p. 28 "Shakespeare put it clearly in As You Like It (Act II, Scene vii):

All the world's a stage. And all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts....

"Many social psychologists and sociologists, most notably Erving Goffman (1959), have used this dramaturgical analogy between social life and a stage play to talk about subtle, indirect forms of social influence. In doing so, these psychologists and sociologists typically emphasize three concepts: social roles, social norms, and reference groups. Within the dramaturgical analogy, social roles are the parts to be played, social norms the script of the play, and reference groups the audience. "Social roles may be formally defined as behavior patterns that are characteristic, and expected, of a person or persons who occupy some position in a social structure. Less formally, they are the parts to be played in the social drama. Of course, playing roles in society is considerably more complex than playing a part in a play. Each of us is called on to play a number of different social roles at once. Some are very specific and well defined; others are general and ambiguous. For example, as a young man, Tony Bassillio might be called on to play simultaneously the roles of premedical student, son, brother, apartment-mate, Catholic, Democrat, part-time mechanic, fiancé, aware 20-year-old, and man. Each of these roles has its own more or less explicit script." There's the reference I was looking for my role-theory write up.

References[edit | edit source]

  • Biddle, Bruce J. 1986. Recent Development in Role Theory. Annual Review of Sociology. pp. 1267-1292.
  • Goffman, Erving. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Anchor Books. ISBN 0385094027
  • Goffman, Erving. 1961. Encounters: Two Studies in the Sociology of Interaction. MacMillan Publishing Co. ISBN 0023445602
  • Michener, H. Andrew and John D. DeLamater. 1999. Social Psychology. Harcourt Brace College Publishers. ISBN 0534583210