Role Theory

views updated Jun 11 2018


Role theory concerns the tendency for human behaviors to form characteristic patterns that may be predicted if one knows the social context in which those behaviors appear. It explains those behavior patterns, (or roles) by assuming that persons within a context appear as members of recognized social identities (or positions) and that they and others hold ideas (expectations) about behaviors in that setting. Its vocabulary and concerns are popular among both social scientists and practitioners, and role concepts have generated both theory and a good deal of research. Nevertheless, conflicts have arisen about the use of role terms and the focus of role theory, and different versions of the theory have appeared among groups of authors who seem to be unaware of alternative versions. Role theory has been weakened by association with controversial theories in sociology, as well.


Role theory arose when social scientists took seriously the insight that social life could be compared with the theater, in which actors played predictable "rôles." This insight was pursued independently by three major contributors in the early 1930s with somewhat different agendas. For Ralph Linton (an anthropologist), role theory was a means for analyzing social systems, and roles were conceived as "the dynamic aspects" of societally recognized social positions (or "statuses"). In contrast, George Herbert Mead (a social philosopher) viewed roles as the coping strategies that individuals evolve as they interact with other persons, and spoke of the need for understanding others' perspectives ("role taking") as a requisite for effective social interaction. And Jacob Moreno (a psychologist) saw roles as the habitual, sometimes harmful, tactics that are adopted by persons within primary relationships, and argued that imitative behavior ("role playing") was a useful strategy for learning new roles.

Additional insights for role theory were generated by other early authors, particularly Muzafer Sherif's studies of the effects of social norms; Talcott Parsons's functionalist theory, which stressed the importance of norms, consensus, sanctioning, and socialization; Robert Merton's analyses of role structures and processes; the works of Neal Gross, Robert Kahn, and their colleagues, which discussed role conflict and applied role concepts to organizations; Everett Hughes's papers on occupational roles; Theodore Newcomb's text for social psychology, which made extensive use of role concepts; and (in Europe) the seminal monographs of Michael Banton, Anne-Marie Rocheblave, and Ragnar Rommetveit, as well as Ralf Dahrendorf's essay "Homo Sociologicus."

The contrasting insights of these early contributors affected many subsequent writers, and various traditions of role theory have since appeared. Unfortunately, advocates for (or critics of) these differing traditions often write as if they are unaware of other versions. In addition, advocates may propose inconsistent uses for terms, or contrasting definitions for concepts, that are basic in role theory. To illustrate, for some authors the term "role" refers only to the concept of social position, for others it designates the behaviors characteristic of social position members, and for still others it denotes shared expectations held for the behaviors of position members. Such inconsistent uses pose problems for the unwary reader.

Also, role theorists may disagree about substantive issues. For example, some authors use role concepts to describe the social system, whereas others apply it to the conduct of the individual. Again, some writers assume that roles are always tied to functions, whereas others conceive roles as behaviors: that conform to expectations, that are directed towards other in the system, that are volitional, that validate the actor's status, or that project a self-image. Such differences in stance have reflected both accidents of intellectual history and the fact that role theorists have wrestled with differing social system forms.

Despite these differences, role theorists tend to share a basic vocabulary, an interest in the fact that human behavior is contextually differentiated and is associated with the social position of the actor, and the assumption that behavior is generated (in part) by expectations that are held by the actor and others. This means that much of role theory presumes a thoughtful, phenomenally aware participant, and role researchers tend to adopt methods that call for the observing of roles and for asking respondents to report about their own or others' expectations. Moreover, it also means that role theory may be contrasted with alternative theoretical positions that give stronger emphasis to unconscious motives or behavior-inducing forces of which the actor may be unaware (such as mechanisms that are not obvious but that serve to maintain structured inequalities of power, wealth, or status).


One early perspective in role theory reflected functionalism. Functionalist thought arose from the contributions of Talcott Parsons and was, at one time, the dominant orientation in American sociology. This theory made use of role concepts, and some authors continue, today, to write as if role theory was or is largely an attempt to formalize functionalism.

Functionalist theory was concerned with the problem of explaining social order. Stable but differentiated behaviors were thought to persist within social systems because they accomplished functions and because actors in those systems shared expectations for behaviors. Such consensual expectations (or "roles") constituted norms for conduct, and actor conformity to norms was induced either because others in the system imposed sanctions on the actor or because the actor internalized them. In addition, those in the system were thought to be aware of the norms they held and could be counted on to teach them to (i.e., to socialize) neophytes as the latter entered the system.

Functionalist thought has been under attack since the 1950s, and many of its basic assumptions have been challenged. Critics have pointed out that persisting behaviors may or may not be functional for social systems, that norms for conduct are often in conflict, that actor conformity need not be generated by norms alone but can also reflect other modes of thought (such as beliefs or preferences), that norms might or might not be supported by explicit sanctions, that norms internalized by the actor may be at odds with those supported by external forces, and that processes of socialization are problematic. Above all, critics have noted that social systems are not the static entities that functionalist thought portrayed, and that human conduct often responds to power and conflicts of interest in ways that were ignored by functionalists. As a result of these attacks, interest in functionalist role theory has declined, although it is still possible to find writers who advocate (e.g., Bates and Harvey 1975) or denounce (Connell 1979) role theory as if it were merely a gloss for functionalism.


Interest in organizational role theory began with the works of Neal Gross, Robert Kahn, and their associates, which questioned the assumption that consensual norms were required for social stability. Instead, these writers suggested that formal organizations were often characterized by role conflict (i.e., opposing norms that were held for actors by powerful others), that such conflicts posed problems for both the actors and the organizations in which they appeared, and that strategies for coping with or "resolving" role conflict could be studied. These insights stimulated both texts that applied role concepts to organizational analysis and many studies of role conflict and role conflict resolution in organizational contexts (see, for example, van de Vliert 1979; Van Sell et al. 1981; Fisher and Gitelson 1983).

In addition, the concept of role conflict has proven attractive to scholars who wanted to conceptualize or study problems that are faced by disempowered persons, particularly married women who must cope with the opposing demands of the workplace, home maintenance, and support for their husbands (Stryker and Macke 1978; Lopata 1980; Skinner 1980). Unfortunately (for the argument), evidence suggests that role conflicts are not always shunned by disempowered persons (see Sales et al. 1980) and that "resolving" those conflicts does not necessarily lead to empowerment.

Despite these problems, research on role conflict within the organization continues actively, and some proponents of the organizational perspective have recently turned their attention to the events of role transition—that is, to phenomena associated with entry into or departure from a role (see Allen and van de Vliert 1984; Ebaugh 1988).


Another use of role concepts has appeared among structuralists and network theorists. This third perspective reflects the early contributions of anthropologists such as S. F. Nadel and Michael Banton, sociologists such as Marion Levy, and social psychologists ranging from Dorwin Cartwright and Frank Harary to Oscar Oeser. As a rule, structuralists concern themselves with the logical implications of ways for organizing social systems (conceived as social positions and roles) and eschew any discussion of norms or other expectation concepts.

To date, much of the work in structural role theory has been expressed in formal, mathematical terms (see Burt 1982; Winship and Mandel 1983). This means that it has had greater appeal for scholars who are mathematically trained. It also constitutes one form of network analysis (although other network perspectives have appeared that do not use role concepts).


Interest in role theory has also appeared among symbolic interactionists who were influenced not only by George Herbert Mead but also by Everett Hughes, Irving Goffman, and other influential figures. In general, symbolic interactionists think of a role as a line of action that is pursued by the individual within a given context. Roles are affected by various forces, including preexisting norms applying to the social position of the actor, beliefs and attitudes that the actor holds, the actor's conception and portrayal of self, and the "definition of the situation" that evolves as the actor and others interact. Roles need not have common elements, but they are likely to become quite similar among actors who face common problems in similar circumstances.

These concepts have been applied by symbolic interactionists to a host of interesting concerns (see, for example, Scheibe 1979; Gordon and Gordon 1982; Ickes and Knowles 1982; Stryker and Serpe 1982; Zurcher 1983; Hare 1985), and a continuing and useful contribution has flowed from Ralph Turner's interest in the internal dynamics of roles and the fact that roles tend to evolve over time (1979, 1990).

Unfortunately, some persons within this perspective have also been guilty of tunnel vision and have produced reviews in which role theory is portrayed largely as an extension of symbolic interactionist thought (see Heiss 1981; Stryker and Statham 1985). In addition, symbolic interactionism has attracted its share of criticism—among other things, for its tendencies to use fuzzy definitions, recite cant, and ignore structural constraints that affect behaviors—and some of these criticisms have tended to rub off on role theory.


Empirical research in role theory has been carried out by cognitive social psychologists representing several traditions (see Biddle 1986, for a general review). Some of this work has focused on role playing, some of it has concerned the impact of group norms, some of it has studied the effects of anticipatory role expectations, and some of it has examined role taking.

In addition, cognitive social psychologists have studied conformity to many forms of expectations, including instrumental norms, moral norms, norms attributed to others, self-fulfilling prophesies, beliefs about the self (such as those induced by identity projection or labeling), beliefs about others, and preferences or "attitudes." These studies suggest that roles are often generated by two or more modes of expectational thought, and several models have also appeared from cognitive theorists reflecting this insight (see, for example, Bank et al. 1985).

Unfortunately, much of this effort ignores expectations for social positions and concentrates, instead, on expectations for individual actors. Cognitive role theory also tends to ignore the implications of its findings for structural analysis, and thus appears to be atheoretical from a sociological perspective. However, Bruce Biddle (1979) has authored a broad vision for role theory that uses information from cognitive research to build models for social system analysis.


Four recent trends in the development of role theory should be noted. First, although the term "role" continues to appear in most textbooks for basic courses in sociology and social psychology, it normally does not appear by itself as a major concept but rather is likely to surface in chapters on such topics as "the self," "groups," "institutions," and "role taking." In contrast, extensive discussions of roles and related concepts may be found in texts for various types of advanced courses for these fields. To illustrate, consider recent texts for courses on group dynamics. In the latest edition of his highly successful work, Donelson Forsyth (1999) devotes an entire chapter to "norms," "roles," and related issues, and in her new text, Joann Keyton (1999) focuses a major chapter on "group member roles," "group norms," and associated materials. As a rule, portrayals of role theory in such sources is straightforward: "roles" are deemed to refer to specific patterns of behavior that are associated with individuals or recognized identities; "norms" are shared expectations for conduct that may apply to all persons in the group or only to certain identities (such as "leaders"); and related concepts such as "socialization" and "role conflict" appear frequently.

Second, many authors continue to employ role concepts for discussing social relations within a specific institution or for portraying the lives of those who share an occupational identity. For example, a substantial literature has now appeared concerned with "the role of the school principal," and a useful summary of this work may be found in a recent review by Ronald Heck and Philip Hallinger (1999). In another example, Biddle (1997) provides an extensive overview of recent research on "the role of the school teacher." Again, much of this applied work makes clear use of concepts from role theory, with the "role" term normally used to refer to differentiated behaviors, whereas notions about behaviors that are thought to be appropriate for roles are normally termed "norms" or "role expectations."

Third, for at least a generation, authors who have written about differences between the conduct, problems, or outlooks of men and women have used role theory as a vehicle for interpreting their findings, and this interest continues. To illustrate, for years a key journal that publishes studies concerned with gender and its problems has borne the title Sex Roles, but recently a particularly strong advocate for using role theory to interpret evidence about gender differences in behavior has appeared in the person of Alice Eagly (1987, 1995). Eagly asserts that such differences appear as a result of structural forces in societies—hence may differ among countries—but are sustained and reproduced because men and women develop role-appropriate expectations for those behaviors. Given the earlier, pioneering studies of Margaret Mead, such assertions would seem unexceptionable, and yet they have touched off a storm of criticism from evolutionary psychologists who prefer to believe that gender differences in conduct are hard wired and culturally universal, and have arisen from the mechanisms of Darwinian selection. (See, for example, Archer [1996].) Unfortunately, in her 1987 book on the subject, Eagly did not make clear that her argument involved only one version of role theory, and it has seemingly not occurred to her evolutionary critics that there might be other versions of the role story that would also bear on their concerns. So, in criticizing her, they have made foolish assertions about "the scope of social role theory," and have condemned it for assumed stances that most role theorists would not advocate.

Fourth and last, every few years interesting works are published by authors who have apparently just discovered some version of role theory and are intrigued with its potential for generating insights or resolving problems in cognate fields. A good example of this type of work appears in a recent article by James Montgomery (1998). Montgomery begins by noting that, in a widely cited work, Granovetter (1985) had argued that economic action is embedded in social relationships and that rational choice theorists have subsequently explored this insight through research on prisoner's dilemma games in which long-term interaction is thought to be governed by general assumptions about "calculative trust." Empirical support for this thesis has been weak, and—drawing on work by James March (1994)—Montgomery argues that a stronger case can be made for assuming that, when engaged in long-term interaction, persons make assumptions about the social identities which they and others have assumed, and that these identities are associated with shared expectations about behaviors that are appropriate in the relationship. To illustrate, Montgomery suggests that expectations are far different when one assumes the other to be a "profit-maximizing 'businessperson"' than when the other is assumed to be a "nonstrategic 'friend."'

Montgomery's arguments are well wrought, and their implications are spelled out through techniques of formal logic. Moreover, Montgomery points out how his arguments relate to recent work on various cognate concerns such as identity processes, artificial intelligence, situation theory, and cognitive psycholgy. So far so good, but (like too many recent converts) Montgomery seems not to be familiar with the bulk of work in the role field, and this leads him to make foolish errors. To illustrate, he refers to social identities as "roles" and shared expectations about behaviors as "rules"— idiosyncratic uses that will surely confuse readers. Worse, he seems not to be familiar with prior work by role theorists on his topic, including major works within the structural role theory tradition; with Ralph Linton's writings on the evolution of roles; and with the fact that much of his argument was actually made forty years ago by John Thibaut and Harold Kelley (1959). It does not help work in any field if scholars are unwilling to familiarize themselves with prior work on their subject, and one wonders how role theory is to make progress in the future if even its advocates are unwilling to do their homework.


As the foregoing examples suggest, role theory is currently weakened by terminological and conceptual confusion, diffuse effort, and the narrow visions of some of its proponents and critics. Nevertheless, role theory concerns central issues for sociology and social psychology, and assumptions about social positions, role behaviors, and expectations for human conduct appear widely in current social thought. Role theory will prosper as ways are found to discuss these issues with clarity, consistency, and breadth of vision.


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Bank, Barbara J., Bruce J. Biddle, Don S. Anderson, Ragnar Hauge, Daphne M. Keats, John A. Keats, Marjorie M. Marlin, and Simone Valantin 1985 "Comparative Research on the Social Determinants of Adolescent Drinking." Social Psychology Quarterly 48(2):164–177.

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—— 1986 "Recent Developments in Role Theory." In R. H. Turner, ed., Annual Review of Sociology, vol. 12. Palo Alto, Calif.: Annual Reviews.

—— 1997 "Recent Research on the Role of the Teacher." In B. J. Biddle, T. L. Good, and I. F. Goodson, eds., International Handbook of Teachers andTeaching. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer.

Burt, Ronald S. 1982 Toward a Structural Theory of Action:Network Models of Social Structure, Perception, and Action. New York: Academic.

Connell, Robert W. 1979 "The Concept of 'Role' and What to Do with It." Australian and New ZealandJournal of Sociology 15:7–17. Reprinted in R. W. Connell, ed., Which Way Is Up? Essays on Sex, Class andCulture, chap. 10. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1983.

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—— 1995 "The Science and Politics of Comparing Women and Men." American Psychologist 50:145–158.

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Bruce J. Biddle

Role Theory

views updated Jun 27 2018

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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Role Theory

views updated May 17 2018

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.

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

Peter L. Callero