Role Theory: Foundations, Extensions, and Applications

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Role theory provides conceptual elements and dynamic relations across the social sciences. Indeed, the notion of role has become something of a "meta-construct" that has been adapted to the scholarly focus and methodological predilections of fields such as sociology, psychology, anthropology, and management, to name just a few. Such broad application, while suiting testimony to the importance of role constructs in social theory, has led to some conceptual confusion, formulamatic imprecision, and sharply diverging interpretations. Nevertheless, there remains a great deal of consensus about the integral nature of roles in the operation of social systems and the behavior of individuals.

Fundamentally, roles are organized behavioral patterns and expectations that attend a given position (hierarchical, functional, or social) or that accompany a specific situation. That is, roles encapsulate and invoke the accepted repertoire of individual conduct associated with a specific position or extant circumstance. In this way, roles provide behavioral guidelines, prescriptions, or boundaries in the form of expectations. These expectations can be formally assigned and explicitly stated—as in the case of occupational job descriptions—or informally assumed and tacit—as in the case of one who plays the "facilitator" role in a friendship clique. Additionally, by evoking behavioral expectations, roles affect how individuals cognitively frame, interpret, and process physical or social stimuli, and thus they further condition emotional responses. There is some controversy as to whether individuals are fully cognizant of the roles they play, but that is incidental to the underlying assumption that roles influence behavior, and thus are powerful predictors of individual action and key to understanding social systems.

This essay is not intended to provide a comprehensive review of role theory nor to propose new theoretical formulations. Rather, this essay will offer a framework for organizing role theory that hinges on levels of analysis and the particular phenomenon of focus.

There are two primary levels of analysis relevant to role theory. The first emphasizes how roles operate within and through social systems, such as societies or groups. The second level is concerned with how roles influence, or are influenced by, the individuals who inhabit them. This is essentially a classic macro versus micro distinction, the former being characteristic of sociological and anthropological inquiry, the latter of management and psychological inquiry (though there is, of course, some crossover). The phenomenon of focus refers to the particular object of inquiry within each level of analysis. For instance, a researcher in the social systems tradition may focus on nations, ethnic heritage, or group cohesion, whereas a researcher in the individual tradition may focus on self-conceptions, cognitions, or conflict. The phenomena of focus vary widely within each level of analysis, and are discussed under subheadings.


The underlying assumption of role theory at the broadest level is that social systems—particularly societies, cultures, organizations, groups and families—are organized and operate through roles. Hence, roles function dynamically to structure the interaction of participants so as to maintain, defend, alter, innovate, or advance the purpose of social systems. In this way, roles become the primary linkage between the social system and the individual, and are designed to communicate the expectations of the larger concern to the particular actor. Roles, then, can be viewed as indispensable mechanisms that embody the values of the social system.

Societies and Stasis. One of the earliest uses of role theory in social science involved the proposal that societies, like organisms, have differentiated parts that function interdependently to allow the whole to operate. In any given society, those parts would include institutions like the state or the church, each of which carry out defined obligations that reflect the priorities of that society. However, institutions in and of themselves do not execute the role. To accomplish their purposes, institutions convey that responsibility to individuals through socialization and inculcation, who in turn are responsible for enacting them. Hence, roles become the primary theoretical construct for explaining social stability. That is, roles function in a manner conducive to social order and stasis. The term "function" is important here, as functionalism was the name given to the major school of thought at the time (Parsons 1951).

The chief concern of functionalism was how societies decided upon, designed, communicated, and enforced roles. This concern opened up a series of issues that have occupied sociological role theory, such as: which parties designate a role, the rationale for the privilege or status assigned given roles, the mechanisms by which the social system inculcates roles, and how to ensure a role is faithfully enacted (see Biddle 1986).

Culture and Change. Role theory has found its way into the study of cultures primarily through anthropology. Here, the dramatic, theatrical flavor of roles is clearly evidenced. The basic thrust is that all cultures have forms of ritual, ceremony, and pageantry that encompass symbolic societal roles which in turn play crucial social functions. Unlike sociologists, who see such institutions and their prescribed roles as maintaining stasis and order, anthropologists, notably Victor Turner (1986), argue that the purpose of such social drama is change. Specifically, Turner contends that, whenever individuals act in accordance with social scripts (i.e., roles), the possibility exists for "liminality": a lodgment in time and circumstance where individuals depart from proscribed patterns and initiate new ones. The very idea of roles is to trigger or generate novelty and creativity by stepping out from that which is expected, and thus bring new meaning to the dynamic represented in the social drama. It is the tension between norms and expectations and the stability they imply, versus the necessity for change for survival's sake, that animates the alteration of roles, which is viewed as the engine of cultural development.

Organizations and Performance. Whereas the emphasis is respectively on stability or change when societies or cultures are the phenomenon of focus, when organizations are the focus, the emphasis is squarely on performance (typically operationalized as productivity, or the difference between inputs and outputs, or costs and profits). Role theory finds its way into management at the macro level with research concerned with organizational design. The major concern is the proper way to arrange an organization for optimal performance, which constitutes a structure through which the organization is managed. Principles involved in organization design include differentiation, integration, centralization, complexity, and formalization. But a key element in the erection of an structure is the formal designation of roles that organizational actors are assigned to play (see Hall 1991).

The roles that individuals assume in organizations are typically assigned based on expertise and previous experience. That is, an individual is specifically trained or has the background to execute the relevant duties; he or she is prepared to fill a role. But beyond possessing the requisite skills, organizational roles are designed to place individuals into the particular structure of the organization. This is accomplished primarily through two formal mechanisms and one informal mechanism. The first is the job description, which is a detailed documentation of all duties and responsibilities. The job description, then, effectively posits expectations and sets strict behavioral boundaries. The second is the reporting relationship, which describes the hierarchical order of the organization, and thus dictates channels for approval and communication. The third, and informal, mechanism by which individual conduct is guided is the organizational culture. In this case, culture refers to the organizations climate as well as its tacit mores and traditions.

From the perspective of research in organizational design, the question is the relationship between structure and performance. For instance, in industries where there is a high rate of change, research suggests that looser structures, with fewer specifications for job descriptions and more open channels of communication, tend to perform better. Suffice it to say, nowhere are roles more formally communicated, monitored, and controlled than in the management of firm performance.

Groups and Functionality. Another area of inquiry where role concepts play a major part is groups. Defined as two or more interdependent individuals who have come together to achieve an objective, groups can include formal work teams, friendship cliques, and even families (though family relations is often treated as an independent, free-standing field of inquiry). The conceptual elements in group research are not fundamentally different from those involved in the study of societies, cultures, or organizations. That is, to accomplish its purpose—whether that purpose be completing an organizationally assigned task or comraderie—group members must function in a complimentary manner. That functioning, then, is typically arranged around roles that members are assigned or assume.

The role concepts most frequently employed in group research are role identity (the attitudes and behaviors consistent with a role), role perception (an individual's view of how to behavior in a given situation), role expectations (other's beliefs of how one should act in a given situation), and role conflict (the contradiction of two role's expectations). These concepts are then used to predict various group dynamics—such as conformity, status relations, and cohesiveness—and outcomes—such as performance, satisfaction, creativity, and efficiency (for a review, see Goodman et al. 1987).


Whether examining societies, cultures, organizations, or groups, roles are enacted by individuals. The term "enacted" is important here, since it belies the theatrical, dramaturgical roots of role theory (Simmel 1920). Moreno (1934) for instance, stressed the importance of role playing as a natural act of children in learning about themselves and their world, and an important aid for education as well as therapy. Perhaps the most memorable proposition is Goffman's powerful theatrical analysis (1959). Goffman's basic premise, not unlike that of Shakespeare's "all the world's a stage," is that all human behavior is acted, with some allowance for the nature or type of audience. Although varying in the degree of their theoretical commitments, these thinkers underscore the central place that the metaphor of stage acting commands in role theory, especially as an explanatory and illustrative aid in understanding individual behavior.

Identity and Interaction. There is no question that individual identity—the self-conception and personality of the individual—is impacted by the society in which individuals live, the family into which they are born, the community in which they were raised, and the people with whom they associate. Identity is surely a complex, interwoven interaction of the person and his or her situation. And that roles exert a strong influence on individual identity is equally obvious in individuals' descriptions of themselves, which invariably involve roles (e.g., daughter, husband, student, lawyer). Individuals, then, show a marked propensity to understand themselves through the roles they have assumed.

The study of roles in identity formation was largely sparked by a school of thought known as symbolic interactionism. According to this perspective, identity evolves through the dynamic process of a communicating society. Here, society is not a static structure that dictates roles and thus identity. Rather, it is built through interaction heavy in symbolic communication. Therefore, society is continually formed and reformed through the reciprocal influence of individuals taking into account one another's characteristics, and the symbolic meanings that emerge as they interact. Accordingly, neither society nor the individual ontologically precedes the other.

Traditional role theory (especially that which employees social systems as the level of analysis) and symbolic interactionism diverge on the precedence of the relationship between society, individuals, and roles. Traditional role theory assumes that roles are defined by society, which in turn logically determines identity. Symbolic interactionism, on the other hand, views roles as emerging from symbolic communication in a reciprocal relationship between the society and the individual. Here, individuals are credited with being active, creative, mindful, and volitional in their identity.

Symbolic interactionism is grounded in the philosophy of the American pragmatists (e.g., W. James, J. Dewey, and C. S. Pierce) and subsequent social scientists like G. H. Mead, C. H. Cooley, and E. Goffman. The basic premise is that the self emerges through symbolic interactions with socially recognized categories and the roles that correspond with those categories. Because roles emerge in relationship to others and society, the self does as well. The self is the way in which individuals understand themselves in relation to others (see Stryker and Statham 1985).

A practical implication of this is that how individuals think of themselves depends, to a great extent, on the social roles that they play. This is nicely captured by W. James: "Many a youth who is demure enough before his parents and teachers, swears and swaggers like a pirate among his tough young friends" (1890, p. 294). Also implicit is James's assertion that individuals have many selves and many social identities: "a man has as many social selves as there are individuals who recognize him and carry an image of him in their mind" (1890, p. 294). Thus, individuals can be said to have many linked selves as opposed to one united self.

The active and emergent nature of the self and identity is indicative of the work of those in the symbolic interactionism tradition. Individuals choose selves upon which to stake a claim and abandon others which did not prove adaptive or failed to garner positive feedback. Thus, self-esteem is directly tied to the choice of selves to maintain or dismiss. In addition, roles and selves are not merely foisted upon individuals, but rather the options available open the opportunity for the exploration of possible selves. Recent papers, derived from James's formulations, contemporary theories of evolution, and performative dynamics, have proposed a model of the exploration and construction of possible selves (Bailey and Ford 1994; Yost et al. 1992).

Cognition and Schematic Processing. Roles affect individual perceptions, determinations and judgments of people, events, and causal relations through schematic processing. A schema is a highly ordered cognitive structure composed of knowledge, beliefs, and feelings about persons, objects, and events. Schemas, then, are mental frameworks that coherently organize memory and associations that in turn facilitate the efficient processing of information. Although there are many types of schemas—such as event schemas (e.g., the script individuals follow when dining at a restaurant) or person schemas (e.g., the knowledge, feelings, and expectations an individual has about another)— role schemas are those that organize proper behavioral patterns according to position or situation.

The notion of role schema is central to the role construct inasmuch as roles are behavioral guidelines. From a cognitive perspective, the question is how role schemas influence individual information processing. This influence occurs in both directions; that is, as observer and as actor. Research demonstrates that, when observing another, the activation of a role schema influences attention, memory, and attribution. For instance, when observing an elderly person, individuals tend to notice, recall, and render causal explanations that are consistent with an age-based role schema (e.g., the older gentleman crinkled his nose because he disapproved of the loud music). In this way, role schemas provide observers with a richly interconnected network of information by which they can categorize and thus interpret the behavior of others. Of course, as a means for comprehending others, role schemas sacrifice accuracy for the sake of efficiency, as is the case with stereotypes. As an actor, role schemas refer to the mental representations of the expectations that attend a role. Similarly, individuals access and process information more quickly when it is related to the role they are occupying at the moment (see Fiske and Taylor 1991).

Transition and Alteration. Research on role transition acknowledges that individuals develop and move from one role to another in the course of their lives. Hence, role transition refers to the movement from one role to another, and specifically how individuals adapt to the transition. For instance, a promotion from staff programmer to project supervisor requires learning new duties and expectations, but also altering attitudes toward others. The same holds true for transitions from son or daughter to parent, from student to employee, and from child to adult. Such role transitions, then, challenge individuals to reconceptualize their notion of themselves, their relations to others, and their opinions and attitudes toward domain-relevant objects and events. Role transition has been examined in the management arena, with emphasis on how to facilitate the transition in order to improve performance, and in the psychological counseling arena, with attention to assuaging the emotional distress that often accompanies such periods of adjustment.

Role change can be defined as an alteration in the consensual understanding of the behavioral patterns of an established role. This is not a transition from one role to another, but rather a change in the expectations and boundaries of an established role. The assumption here is that roles are not static entities, but must evolve in order to adequately address the demands of the cultural milieu, economic conditions, or social situation (see Turner 1990).

There are three fundamental ways in which roles can change. First, roles can change according to shifting societal priorities or cultural patterns. For instance, gender roles have gone through considerable alteration as attitudes toward equal rights, access to career opportunities, and traditional obligations have been reconsidered and reconfigured in society. Second, roles can change because of formal dictates from authority. For instance, one's job responsibilities could be expanded quantitatively (e.g., supervising more people) or quantitatively (e.g., involving an entirely different skill set). Third, and perhaps the most interesting, roles can be changed by the individual who inhabits the role. For instance, individuals may, because of either personal preferences or attitudes, redefine a "director" role to be less about planning and monitoring and more about mentoring and directing.


Role theory has come full circle. Early formulations, especially those of Parsons (1951), Moreno (1934), and Goffman (1959), have recently gained considerable currency. For instance, functionalism has proved useful as an analytic framework for describing alterations in emerging democracies. Moreno's emphasis on role playing has found its way into pedagogy in the form of classroom exercises to illustrate concepts and executive workshops for skill development, as well as a fruitful method for therapeutic intervention. And Goffman's reliance on stage acting has influenced current thinking on identity and even research methodology. What this suggests is that role theorists are acutely aware of their theoretical heritage and progenitors, and are willing to mine the past in order to better understand the present.

Roles change as broad conditions shift. Political, economic, and technological factors are especially volatile, each in its own way altering the social system in which individuals reside and the manner in which they understand themselves. Although role theory has not been as intensely researched in last decade—a victim of academic fashion—it continues to provide an intellectual and structural foundation for fields across the social sciences. Moreover, because the late twentieth century is marked as much by change as anything else, social conditions are changing at a dizzying pace. No theoretical construct is more suited to examine the impact of such changes on the social system and the individual than role theory.


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James R. Bailey
John H. Yost