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Role theory is a concept 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 role is a set of rights, duties, expectations, norms, and behaviors 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, Talcott Parsons, and Ralph Linton, Georg Simmel. Two of Mead's concepts—the mind and the self—are the precursors to 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, or "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- Changed conditions can render a social role outdated or illegitimate, in which case social pressures are likely to lead to role change;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.
Depending on the general perspective of the theoretical tradition, there are many types of role theory, however it may be divided into two major types, in particular: structural functionalism role theory and dramaturgical role theory. Structural functionalism role theory is essentially defined as everyone having a place in the social structure and every place had a corresponding role, which has an equal set of expectations and behaviors. Life is more structured, and there is a specific place for everything. Contrastly, Dramaturgical Role Theory defines life as a never-ending play, in which we are all actors. The essence of this role theory is to role-play in an acceptable manner in society.
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, whereas others consider it means how individuals actually behave in a given social position. Some 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.
Role theory models behaviour as patterns of behaviours to which one can conform, with this conformity being based on the expectations of others.[a]
It has been argued that a role must in some sense being defined in relation to others.[b] The manner and degree is debated by sociologists. Turner used the concept of an "other-role", arguing the process of defining a role is negotiating one's role with other-roles.[c]
The construction of roles
Turner argued that the process of describing a role also modifiers the role which would otherwise be implicit referring to this process as role-making arguing that very formal roles such as those in the military are not representation of roles because the role-making process is suppressed. [d]
Situation-specific roles develop ad hoc in a given social situation. However it can be argued that the expectations and norms that defin this ad hoc role are defined by social role.
The relationship between roles and norms
Some theorists view behaviour as being enforced by social norms. Turner rather argues that there is a norm of consistency and failing to conform to a role breaks a norm because it violate consistency.
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 received 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 component of role theory is that people accept their own roles in the society and it is not the society that imposes them.
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:
- The norms that determine 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 one's own behaviour as well as the behaviour of other people. Heinrich Popitz defines social roles as norms of behaviour that a special social group has to follow. Norms of behaviour are a set of behaviours that have become typical among group members; in case of deviance, negative sanctions follow.
In public relations
Role theory is a perspective that considers everyday activity to be acting out socially defined categories. Split into two narrower definitions: status is one's position within a social system or group; and role is one's pattern of behavior associated with a status.
Organizational role is defined as "recurring actions of an individual, appropriately interrelated with the repetitive activities of others so as to yield a predictable outcome." (Katz & Kahn, 1978). Within an organization there are three main topologies:
- Two-role typology:
- Four-role typology:
- Expert prescriber
- Communication facilitator
- Problem solver
- Communication technician
- Five-role typology:
- Monitor and evaluator
- Key policy and strategic advisor
- Troubleshooter/problem solver
- Issues management expert
- Communication technician
Role conflict, strain or making
Despite variations in the terms used, the central component of all of the formulations is incompatibility.
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 conflict is said to exist when there are important differences among the ratings given for various expectations. By comparing the extent of agreement or disagreement among the ranks, a measure of role conflict was obtained.
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.
Role making is defined by Graen as leader–member exchange.
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.
Criticism and limitations
Role theorists have noted that a weakness of role theory is in describing and explaining deviant behavior.
Role theory has been criticized for reinforcing commonly held prejudices about how people should behave;[e] individualizing problems, view the individual as responsibility for fulfilling the expectations of a role rather than others responsible for creating a role that they can perform,[f] and people have argued that role theory is insufficiently explains power relations, as in some situations an individual does not consensual fulfil a role but is forced into behaviours by power.[g] It is also argued that that role theory does not explain individual agency in negotiating their role[h] and that role theory artificially merges roles when in practice an individual might combine roles together.[i]
Others have argued that the concept of role takes on such a broad definition as to be meaningless.[j]
- Deviance (sociology)
- Dramaturgical perspective
- Game studies
- Generalized other
- Role engulfment
- Role model
- Role suction
- Transactional analysis
- See section "Conformity connotes compliance to some pattern for behavior"
- "The role cannot be limited to one person's behaviour, but must include the behaviour of others which provide the rights enabling those actions":1
- "The idea of role-taking shift emphasis away from the simple process of enacting a prescribed role to devising a performance on the basis of an imputer other-role"
- "The result is that in attempting from time to time to make aspects of the roles explicit he is creating and modifying roles as well as merely bringing them to light; the process is not only role-takig but role-making.":85
- "First, critics claim that role theory falsely reifies certain social ideologies into concrete realities or objective templates, and names them roles." The example of "motherhood" is discussed.
- "When using role conflict to analyze deviant behavior, role theorists rely on explanations of insufficient socialization or a mismatch between one's personality and behavioral expectations as the primary reasons an individual does not engage in proper behavior"
-  gives the example of coercion rather than willingly performing a role effecting behaviour: "In these cases, internalized behavior resulting from a consensual socialization process does not necessarily account for the individuals' actions"
- "Fourth, role theory fails to provide an authentic account of human agency, more specifically, the subjective experience of an individual's engagement in occupation"
- "Bracketing occupation into various roles provides the illusion that life is partitioned into isolated segments which can be dealt with independently."
- "The charge has been made that referents for the term 'role' are so heterogeneous as to defy rigorous study and coherent theory formation"
- Hindin, Michelle J. 2007. "Role theory." Pp. 3959–62 in The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology, edited by G. Ritzer. Blackwell Publishing.
- Yang, Peishan (2012-09-29). "Revitalizing Roles of Older Adult Citizens: Successful Stories of Project History Alive". Ageing International. 38 (2): 137–148. doi:10.1007/s12126-012-9163-2. ISSN 0163-5158.
- Biddle, B. J. (1986). "Recent Developments in Role Theory". Annual Review of Sociology. Annual Reviews. 12 (1): 67–92. doi:10.1146/annurev.so.12.080186.000435. ISSN 0360-0572.
- Judith R. Blau; Rose Laub Coser; Norman Goodman (1 January 1995). Social Roles & Social Institutions: Essays in Honor of Rose Laub Coser. Transaction Publishers. ISBN 978-1-4128-3444-5.
- Dennis Brissett; Charles Edgley (1 January 2005). Life As Theater: A Dramaturgical Sourcebook. Transaction Publishers. pp. 85–. ISBN 978-0-202-36711-8.
- "ROLE THEORY". webhome.auburn.edu. Retrieved 2019-10-17.
- Johansson, Bengt; Larsson, Larsåke (2015-06-01). "The Complexity of Public Relations Work". Nordicom Review. 36 (1): 125–139. doi:10.1515/nor-2015-0010. ISSN 2001-5119.
- Dozier, David M.  2007. "Program evaluation and the roles of practitioners." Public Relations Review 10(2):13–21. doi:10.1016/S0363-8111(84)80002-8.
- Broom, G. M., and G. D. Smith. 1979. "Testing the practitioner's impact on clients." Public Relations Review 5(3):47–59.
- Moss, D., A. Newman, and B. DeSanto. 2005. "What do communication managers do? Defining and refining the core elements of management in a public relations/corporate communication context." Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 82(4):873–90.
- Gerald, Grace (2011-12-08). Role Conflict and the Teacher. Routledge. p. 3. ISBN 978-0415689489.
- Jackson, Jeanne (1998). "Contemporary criticisms of role theory". Journal of Occupational Science. Informa UK Limited. 5 (2): 49–55. doi:10.1080/14427591.1998.9686433. ISSN 1442-7591.
- 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