Role theory is a perspective in sociology and in social psychology that considers most of everyday activity to be the acting out of socially defined categories (e.g., mother, manager, teacher). Each social role is a set of rights, duties, expectations, norms and behaviours that a person has to face and fulfill. The model is based on the observation that people behave in a predictable way, and that an individual’s behavior is context specific, based on social position and other factors. The theatre is a metaphor often used to describe role theory.
Although the word role (or roll) has existed in European languages for centuries, as a sociological concept, the term has only been around since the 1920s and 1930s. It became more prominent in sociological discourse through the theoretical works of George Herbert Mead, Jacob L. Moreno, and Linton. Two of Mead’s concepts – the mind and the self – are the precursors to role theory.
Depending on the general perspective of the theoretical tradition, there are many ‘‘types’’ of role theory. The theory posits the following propositions about social behaviour:
- The division of labor in society takes the form of the interaction among heterogeneous specialized positions that we call roles;
- Social roles included "appropriate" and "permitted" forms of behavior, guided by social norms, which are commonly known and hence determine expectations;
- Roles are occupied by individuals, who are called "actors";
- When individuals approve of a social role (i.e., they consider the role "legitimate" and "constructive"), they will incur costs to conform to role norms, and will also incur costs to punish those who violate role norms;
- Changed conditions can render a social role outdated or illegitimate, in which case social pressures are likely to lead to role change;
- The anticipation of rewards and punishments, as well as the satisfaction of behaving in a prosocial way, account for why agents conform to role requirements.
In terms of differences among role theory, on one side there is a more functional perspective, which can be contrasted with the more micro level approach of the symbolic interactionist tradition. This type of role theory dictates how closely related individuals’ actions are to the society, as well as how empirically testable a particular role theory perspective may be.
A key insight of this theory is that role conflict occurs when a person is expected to simultaneously act out multiple roles that carry contradictory expectations.
Substantial debate exists in the field over the meaning of the "role" in role theory. A role can be defined as a social position, behavior associated with a social position, or a typical behavior. Some theorists have put forward the idea that roles are essentially expectations about how an individual ought to behave in a given situation, while others consider it means how individuals actually behave in a given social position. Others have suggested that a role is a characteristic behavior or expected behavior, a part to be played, or a script for social conduct.
In sociology there are different categories of social roles:
- cultural roles: roles given by culture (e.g. priest)
- social differentiation: e.g. teacher, taxi driver
- situation-specific roles: e.g. eye witness
- bio-sociological roles: e.g. as human in a natural system
- gender roles: as a man, woman, mother, father, etc.
In their life people have to face different social roles, sometimes they have to face different roles at the same time in different social situations. There is an evolution of social roles: some disappear and some new develop. Role behaviour is influenced by following aspects:
- The norms, determining a social situation.
- Internal and external expectations are connected to a social role.
- Social sanctions (punishment and reward) are used to influence role behaviour.
These three aspects are used to evaluate the own behaviour and the behaviour of other people. Heinrich Popitz defines social roles as norms of behaviour a special social group has to follow. Norms of behaviour are a set of behaviour that is usually used by the group members, in case of deviance, negative sanctions follow.
Cultural roles are seen as matter of course and are mostly stable. In cultural changes new roles can develop and old roles can disappear – these cultural changes are affected by political and social conflicts. For example the feminist movement initiated a change in male and female roles in Western societies.
Social differentiation got a lot of attention due to the development of different job roles. Robert K. Merton distinguished between intrapersonal and interpersonal role conflicts. For example, a foreman has to develop his own social role facing the expectations of his team members and his supervisor – this is an interpersonal role conflict. He also has to arrange his different social roles as father, husband, club member – this is an intrapersonal role conflict.
Ralph Dahrendorf distinguished between must-expectations, with sanctions; shall-expectations, with sanctions and rewards and can-expectations, with rewards. The foreman has to avoid corruption; he should satisfy his reference groups (e.g. team members and supervisors); and he can be sympathetic. He argues another proponent of role theory is that people accepts their own roles in the society and it is not the society that imposes them.
Situation-specific roles develop ad hoc in a given social situation. Nevertheless the expectations and norms are predetermined by the social role.
The central weakness of role theory is in describing and explaining deviant behavior.
Role conflict or strain
Role conflict is a conflict among the roles corresponding to two or more statuses, for example, teenagers who have to deal with pregnancy (statuses: teenager, mother).
Role strain or "role pressure" may arise when there is a conflict in the demands of roles, when an individual does not agree with the assessment of others concerning his or her performance in his or her role, or from accepting roles that are beyond an individual's capacity.
At the same time, a person may have limited power to negotiate away from accepting roles that cause strain, because he or she is constrained by societal norms, or has limited social status from which to bargain.
- Hindin, Micelle J. (2007) "role theory" in George Ritzer (ed.) The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology, Blackwell Publishing, 2007, 3959-3962
- Mead, George H. (1934). Mind, Self, and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Parsons, Talcott (1951). The Social System.
- Robert K. Merton, Social Theory and Social Structure, 1949
- Ralf Dahrendorf, Homo sociologicus, 1958 (in German, many editions)
- Rose Laub Coser, “The Complexity of Roles as a Seedbed of Individual Autonomy”, in: The Idea of Social Structure: Papers in Honor of Robert K. Merton, 1975
- Ralph Linton, The Study of Man, Chapter 8, "Status and Role", 1936