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Role Theory

Role Theory

Role theory is not one theory. Rather, it is a set of concepts and interrelated theories that are at the foundation of social science in general, and the study of the family in particular. The ideas and concepts formulated in the development of role theory continue to inform family theory and research more than half a century later. This is apparent in past and current research on the merging of family and work.

Roles are the building blocks of social institutions and social structures. Although numerous perspectives and terms have developed around the concept of role, Ivan Nye (1976) has divided the perspectives into two general approaches: structural and interactionist.

Roles as Structure

From the structural perspective, roles are the culturally defined norms—rights, duties, expectations, and standards for behavior—associated with a given social position (Linton 1945). In other words, one's social position is seen as influencing one's behaviors. In addition, statuses such as gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and social class also shape roles (Lopata 1991).

For example, as a mother, a woman is expected to place the care of her child above all other concerns. Although this normative expectation varies across cultures, with some cultures expecting mothers to be paid workers as well, opinion surveys show that the majority of people in countries as diverse as Australia, Japan, and Poland believe that women with preschool-age children should not work outside of the home and that their children will suffer if they do.

The actual enactment of role behavior, however, may not correspond to the role expectations. Role competence, or success in carrying out a role, can vary depending on social contexts and resources. In countries with strong normative expectations for women to be full-time mothers, single mothers and low-income mothers often have to violate these role expectations and have been criticized as less competent mothers as a result.

Indeed, there is pressure to conform successfully to roles. Sanctions are used as tools of enforcement. Punishments for not following the role of mother can range from informal sanctions, such as rebukes from neighbors, to formal sanctions, such as the intervention of child welfare services. An example is found among women who choose not to take the role of mother and remain voluntarily childless. In a study of Swedish couples without children, researchers found that women, in particular, felt alienated from the majority of women in their community, friendship networks, and at work who were mothers (Wirtberg 1999).

The social pressure to confirm to roles can be negative for individuals. Role captivity refers to the unwanted participation in a particular role (Pearlin 1983). Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique (1963) is probably one of the most well-known and influential works on role captivity. She found that many women, prohibited by the threat of sanctions from taking a role other than mother and wife, felt trapped and experienced depression and frustration as a result.

Despite sanctions, roles do not remain static, but change and evolve over time (Turner 1990). Roles crystallize when they are widely recognized and deemed important by those who share a culture (Nye 1974). Yet not all roles are equally crystallized, and highly crystallized roles can decrystallize over time. Since Friedan's work in the early 1960s, it has not only become socially acceptable for women in the United States to have other roles beside those in the family, but being "only a housewife" has become stigmatized (Rothbell 1991). As roles change, there can be shifts in clarity, or the extent to which roles have clearly defined, unambiguous expectations (Cottrell 1942). The clarity of well-established roles is often high, while newer roles can be met with uncertainty and confusion.

Roles as Interaction

The interactionist perspective focuses on how individuals adopt and act out roles during interaction. Individuals perform their roles to others in a social context (role-performing), analogous to actors on a stage (Goffman 1959). Individuals also take on the role of others in order to anticipate their actions and perspectives (role-taking) and continually produce and reproduce roles (role-making) (Turner 1956). As an outcome of these interactions, individuals identify themselves and are identified by others as holding particular social statuses or positions (Stryker 1968). For example, the action of caring for a child confirms a woman's identity as a mother.

Research has uncovered the complex relationship between roles in interaction and the construction of identity. In a study of women hospital workers, Anita Garey (1999) found that women use the night shift as a way to publicly perform the dual, otherwise mutually exclusive roles of stay-at-home mom and full-time worker. This performance is done at a great cost to the women, most of whom get only a few hours of sleep each day. In another study, Cameron Macdonald (1998) showed how employed mothers and paid caregivers both acted in a way to ensure that the biological mother remains the "mother," although the two share the responsibilities and duties associated with the role.

Individuals do not equally embrace all identities associated with roles. Individuals vary in the extent to which they are committed to or identify with their different roles. Sheldon Stryker (1968) spoke of a salience hierarchy, or the probability of role expectations associated with an identity being displayed in a role performance. Ralph Turner (1978) wrote of the role-person merger, the process through which the person becomes what his or her role is, rather than merely performing a particular role in a given situation. Incongruity between a person's identity and roles results in person-role conflict. Erving Goffman (1961) spoke of role distance, or the way in which individuals separated themselves from particular roles that conflict with their identities.

Accumulating and Changing Roles

Individuals accumulate different roles at any given stage within the life course. Throughout life, individuals transfer into and out of different roles, keeping some, leaving others behind, and beginning new roles (Burr 1972). These role transitions accompany transitions through life stages and can be easy or difficult, depending on the timing and social context (Rodgers and White 1993). In addition, the transition into one role can affect the transition into another. For instance, women in Germany and other European countries are delaying their transition to the roles of wife and mother as they extend their time in the role of student. It is concluded that remaining a student delays the transition to adulthood and likewise to normatively associated adult roles (Blossfeld and Huinink 1991).

Within each life stage, individuals also simultaneously hold many different roles. One reason for this is that individuals hold multiple social positions at one time. When a woman becomes a mother, she can also continue to have the roles of daughter, wife, and daughter-in-law. In addition, each position is associated with a role set, an individual's range of role relationships that accompany any social status (Merton 1957). As a mother, a woman manages unique expectations from her child, her parents and in-laws who have become grandparents, the father, and her child's teachers and doctors. A role cluster refers to the interconnection between roles that occur within the same social institution (Lopata 1991). A woman's roles within the family are related and often different in important ways from her roles in the workplace, such as business owner, manager, and colleague.

Research finds multiple roles to be associated with both positive and negative consequences. Much attention had been given to the problems associated with multiple roles. Role overload and role conflict are two of the most well-known role theory concepts. Role overload refers to the experience of lacking the resources, including time and energy, needed to meet the demands of all roles. Role conflict describes an incongruity between the expectations of one role and those of another. Role overload and conflict often lead to difficulties with meeting role expectations, known as role strain (Goode 1960). Various negative psychological and physical problems can follow from role strain. In many cultures, including Japan, Singapore, and China, women experience stress, distress, and burnout as a result of combining work and family roles (Aryee 1993; Lai 1995; Matusi, Oshsawa, and Onglatco 1995). Levels of conflict, however, vary across cultures as a result of perceptions of gender roles and the subsequent amount of time given to work and domestic roles (Moore 1995).

At the same time, some evidence suggests that multiple roles provide opportunities and advantages. In their theory of role balance, Stephen Marks and Shelley MacDermid (1996) found that people who are able to fully participate in and perform a number of different roles experience not only less role strain but also lower rates of depression and higher self-esteem and innovation. Rose Laub Coser (1975) argues that it is among multiple roles that individuals are able to express individuality and act autonomously in accordance with or in opposition to normative expectations. Thus, multiple roles are important for the development of personality and intellect. Lois Verbrugge (1983) found that women who hold the multiple roles of mother, wife, and paid worker have better health than women holding none or only some of these roles.

Phyllis Moen (1992) has examined the potential positive and negative consequences for women of combining paid work and family roles. She concludes that whether multiple roles are positive or negative for women depends on many factors in women's lives, such as conditions of the work, conditions of their family roles, including the number and age of children, and extent to which women view themselves as captives or committed to their work and family roles.

Role sharing is likely a means through which the positive aspects of multiple roles can outweigh potential negative consequences. Individuals with different social statuses and social positions, or even across social institutions, can share the same role. For example, the care of children is often considered to be the role of mothers. However, fathers, employers, and government can all adopt the caregiving role (Drew, Emerek, and Mahon 1998). When they do, women are better able to competently fill and benefit from roles as both workers and mothers and experience less role strain, overload, and conflict. In China, while the father role is still viewed as primarily teacher and disciplinarian and mothers are viewed as the physical caregivers, fathers are increasingly participating in the caregiver role. This change is attributed to government-sponsored parental education and contact with Western culture (Abbott, Ming, and Meredith 1992). The International Labour Organization calls for employers to take on the responsibility of helping employees combine work and family (Derungs 2001). As they learn the benefits of fulfilling this role, employers are committing to this role. Governments, on the other hand, seem to be moving in an opposite direction. European welfare states previously embraced the role of contributing to the care of children by providing policies that aided women and later men in combining work and family. However, recent years have seen a change in the role of the state, with less emphasis on ensuring public childcare for all citizens (Jenson and Sineau 2001).

See also:Family Roles; Family Theory; Resource Management; Symbolic Interactionism; Transition to Parenthood


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carrie l. yodanis

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Role Theory

Role Theory





Role theory is generally concerned with explaining the relationship between the individual and society. It has guided empirical research on a range of topics, including the structure of interaction in small groups, the maintenance of gender differences, the development of commitment to deviant behavior, the genesis and resolution of conflict in organizations, and the construction of personal identity. Although the development of role theory has occurred primarily within sociology, it originated in several different social science disciplines. The first significant contributions were published in the 1930s with independent work by the anthropologist Ralph Linton (18931953), the psychotherapist Jacob Moreno (18891974), and the social philosopher George Herbert Mead (18631931). Of these three, Meads contributions have been the most significant as he was an important influence on the emerging new discipline of sociology. Within sociology, there have been two distinct traditions of role theory; these have been nominally categorized as the structural and interactionist schools.


Starting in the 1950s and continuing through the 1960s, role theory was associated mostly with the work of the American sociologist Talcott Parsons (19021979). During this period, Parsons and his associates were developing a comprehensive theory of society that came to be known as structural functionalism. Under structural functionalism, society is viewed as a complex system of structures and processes with layers of interconnected subsystems, institutions, values, positions, and roles. In Parsonss scheme, the role concept is used to explain how individual desires and motivations are reconciled with the collective needs of society. This occurs in part through the process of socialization, where kinship, educational, and religious institutions transmit societal values. When individuals are properly socialized, they fulfill the expectations and needs of an orderly social system by playing the roles associated with their position in society. Parsons argued, for example, that the preponderance of men in the occupational system of the 1940s was functional in that it eliminated competition for status between husband and wife. While the husband achieved status through his role as provider in a high-prestige job, the wife achieved a functionally equivalent status in her role as homemaker where prestige could be achieved through superiority in personal appearance, house furnishings, and other artistic pursuits.

In the structural tradition, roles are typically defined as the socially shared expectations and behaviors associated with a position in society. Because individuals have multiple positions in society, however, there are times when role expectations pull in competing directions so that fulfilling one role may mean failing to fulfill another. This dilemma has been called role conflict, and it can take several different forms. One of these is role overload, which occurs when there is not enough time or energy to play all the roles in ones role set. Related structural interpretations of role theory have been concerned with differentiating among the different types of roles, describing changes in roles, and explaining why people often deviate from role expectations.


By the middle of the 1960s a competing version of role theory was in development. The so-called interactionist school emerged initially as a critique of the dominant structural perspective. The interactionist critics argued that the structural approach to role theory put too much emphasis on societal consensus, relied naively on the existence of widespread conformity with social norms, and held an overly mechanical and deterministic view of social behavior.

The American sociologist Ralph H. Turner spearheaded the development of the interactionist approach by introducing the idea of role making. According to Turner, in everyday situations there is always a degree of uncertainty and discretion. Since roles can only suggest general patterns of action, individuals must cooperate to create and modify roles in particular settings. Research has shown this to be true even in strict, hierarchical organizations such as the military and correctional institutions, where positions are rigidly defined and rules are enforced within a clear authority structure. From the interactionist perspective, understanding the process by which individuals learn to coordinate their actions and construct role related behavior is crucial.

The central idea in the coordination of joint action is a process called role taking, a concept developed in the seminal work of Mead. Role taking, sometimes called taking the role of other, occurs when an actor anticipates the behavior of others in specific situations and adjusts his or her action accordingly. This uniquely human ability develops along with language and other basic skills of symbolic interaction. Once in place, a capacity for role taking enables mutual understanding, coordinated action, and the development of common plans. It is also fundamental to the more complex process of building and maintaining large social institutions. Thus, in contrast to the top-down structural approach to role behavior that focuses on role playing, the interactionists present a bottom-up approach that stresses the creative aspects of role making.


After the 1980s, differences between structuralists and interactionists gave way to more synthetic approaches where ideas from both theoretical traditions were integrated. Thus, there developed a general acknowledgment that social roles can profoundly limit and structure patterns of social behavior while at the same time they can serve as resources for enabling and facilitating other actions. Rather than emphasizing role playing or role making, it became more productive to see roles as social resources that are deployed by institutions and persons in different ways; in short, the emphasis was now on role using.

Although role theory is no longer central to most comprehensive theories of society, as it was for Parsons and Mead, it does continue to generate a stream of work at different levels of analysis. At the social psychological level, for example, scholars have found that social roles are central components of ones overall identity, and evidence shows that roles have profound influence on peoples behavior in social settings, on how they organize and process information, and on their political, economic, and moral priorities. At the macro and institutional level, research has documented the increasing proliferation of new, more specialized roles in modern society as well as the changing nature of traditional roles resulting from economic and cultural globalization.

SEE ALSO Conformity; Functionalism; Norms; Role Conflict; Role Models; Self-Concept; Social Psychology; Socialization; Structuralism


Callero, Peter L. 1994. From Role-Playing to Role-Using: Understanding Role as Resource. Social Psychology Quarterly 57 (3): 228243.

Joas, Hans. 1993. Pragmatism and Social Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mead, George H. 1934. Mind, Self, and Society from the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Parsons, Talcott. 1951. The Social System. Glencoe, IL: The Free Press.

Turner, Ralph H. 2001. Role Theory. In Handbook of Sociological Theory, ed. Jonathan H. Turner, 233254. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum.

Peter L. Callero

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