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A role (sometimes spelled rôle) or a social role is a set of connected behaviors, rights and obligations as conceptualized by actors in a social situation. It is mostly defined as an expected behavior in a given individual social status and social position.

A set of expectations govern the behavior of persons holding a particular role in society; a set of norms that defines how persons in a particular position should behave. Important social roles have scripts that those who perform those roles are supposed to follow. (Stark 2007)

The term is used in two rather different but related senses. It is vital to both functionalist and interactionist understandings of society, but is of only peripheral relevance to conflict theory.

Role confusion is a situation where an individual has trouble determining which role he/she should play. For example, one could be a college student who would attend a convention of a particular recreational interest and find his or her teacher there. Conflict between behaving as a student and as an enthusiast who shares the same interest emerges, leading to confusion.

Role conflict characterises a situation where fulfilling a certain role has a conflict with fulfilling another role. For example, you found your teacher made a mistake and should you report that? If you did, you might disgrace him and if you didn't, you might not fulfil your role as student. While role conflict takes place across different role sets, role strain happens within the same role set.

Social role posits the following propositions about social behavior:

1. People spend much of their lives in groups. 2. Within these groups, people often take distinct positions. 3. Each of these positions can be called a role, with a whole set of functions that are molded by the expectations of others. 4. Formalized expectations become norms when enough people feel comfortable in providing punishments and rewards for the expected behavior. 5. Individuals are generally conformists, and insofar as that is true, they conform to roles. 6. The anticipation of rewards and punishments inspire this conformity.

How Social Role Is Determined

Achieved vs. Ascribed

Achieved role (see Achieved status) is a position that a person assumes voluntarily which reflects personal skills, abilities, and efforts. Roles are not forced upon the individual, a choice is involved.

Achieved status is a sociological term denoting a social position that a person acquires on the basis of merit. It reflects personal skills, abilities, and efforts. Examples of achieved status are being an Olympic athlete, being a criminal, or being a college professor. Status is important sociologically because it comes with a set of rights, obligations, behaviors, and duties that people occupying a certain position are expected or encouraged to perform. These expectations are referred to as roles. For instance, the role of a "professor" includes teaching students, answering their questions, being impartial, and dressing appropriately.

Ex: criminals, professional athletes, teachers, ranks in military, etc.

Ascribed role (see Ascribed status) is a position assigned to individuals or groups without regard for merit but because of certain traits beyond their control (Stark 2007). Roles are forced upon the individual.

Ex: brother, mom, son, African-American,Philppino, teenager, etc.

Role Requirements

For many roles, individuals must meet certain sociological conditions. For instance, a boy cannot take the role as a mother. Other roles require training or experience. For instance, a student must complete his studies and gain experience in the workforce before taking the role of professor.

Role Influence

Societal Influence

The structure of society often forms individuals into certain roles based on the social situations they choose to experience. Parents enrolling their children in certain programs at a young age increases the chance that the child will follow that role.

Ex: children who take art at a young age are more likely to become artists than children who do not take art, students who attend college are more likely to be library patrons, etc.

Genetic Influence

People take on roles that come naturally to them. Those with athletic ability generally take on roles of athletes. Those with mental genius often take on roles devoted to education and knowledge. This does not mean that people must choose only one path, multiple roles can be taken on by each individual (i.e. Mark can be the point guard on the basketball team and the editor of his school newspaper).

Ex: professional athletes, Mensa members, etc.

Cultural Influence

Different cultures place different values on certain roles based on their lifestyle. For instance, soccer players are regarded higher in European countries than in the United States where soccer is less popular.

Ex: soldiers, role of family members, etc.

Situational Influence

Roles can be created or altered based on the situation a person is put in outside their own influence.

Ex: eye-witness to a crime, car crash victim, etc.

Characteristics that influence a social role

Norms of Behavior

Norms are effective guides for social behavior. Norms must be activated before they can guide behavior. When individuals are in a state of deindividuation, they see themselves only in terms of group identity, and their behavior is likely to be guided by group norms alone.

The norm of social reciprocity directs us to return to others the favors, goods, and services they offer us. This norm is used in the door-in-the-face technique, the "that's-not-all" technique, and in selling the top of the line. The norm of social commitment directs us to keep our promises. This norm is used in the low-ball technique. The norm of obedience directs us toward submission to authority. Milgram showed this obedience in his study where participants had to deliver shocks to suffering victims.

It is possible to resist being manipulated by norms. People display reactance by fighting against threats to their freedom of action when they find norms inappropriate. Attitudes and norms typically work together to influence behavior (directly or indirectly). According to the theory of planned behavior, intentions are a function of three factors: attitudes about the behavior, social norms relevant to the behavior, and perceptions of control over the behavior. When attitudes and norms disagree, their influence on behavior will depend on their relative accessibility.

Group norms have a powerful effect on behavior. But norms can only guide behavior when those norms are activated by obvious reminders, or by subtle cues. People adhere to social norms through enforcement, internalization, the sharing of norms by other group members, and frequent activation. (Smith 2007)

Individuals are expected to fulfill their role in society. Society regulates the behavior of different roles on a reward or punishment system. Individuals primarily attempt to fulfill their roles for their own succession.

Rewarded- Individuals are rewarded for living up to their roles (i.e. students getting an "A" on their exam)

Punished- Individuals are punished for not completing the duties of their role (i.e. a salesman is fired for not selling enough product)

Social Norms Theory

Social norms theory states that much of people's behavior is influenced by their perception of how other members of their social group behave. According to social norms theory, people tend to misperceive, i.e., exaggerate, the negative health behavior of their peers. If people think harmful behavior is typical, they are more likely to engage in that type of behavior.

All too often, perceptions are incorrect. If unhealthy behavior is perceived to be the standard in a social group, the social urge to conform will negatively affect overall behavior of group members. Alternatively, by educating a group about healthy behavior that is in fact the usual practice among their peers, behavior can be affected in a positive aspect, manner, way.

Social norms is an environmental approach that seeks to impact social and cultural environments as the way to then influence individuals. It has been widely applied using social marketing techniques. Normative messages are designed for delivery using various media and promotion strategies in order to effectively reach a target population and promote its accurate norms of health and safety.

Social norms theory has also been successfully applied through other strategies such as curriculum infusion, creating press coverage, policy development, and small group inventions. (Main Frame 2002)

Role Set

A role-set is the array of roles one individual’s status takes on. For instance, a high school football player takes on the roles of athlete, student, classmate, etc.

Each social status involves not a single associated role, but an array of roles. This basic feature of social structure can be registered by the distinctive but not formidable term, role-set. To repeat, then, by role-set I mean that complement of role-relationships in which persons are involved by virtue of occupying a particular social status. Thus, in our current studies of medical schools, we have begun with the view that the status of medical student entails not only the role of a student vis-a-vis his teachers, but also an array of other roles relating him diversely to other students, physicians, nurses, social workers, medical technicians, and the like. Again, the status of school teacher in the United States has its distinctive role-set, in which are found pupils, colleagues, the school principal and superintendent, the Board of Education, professional associations, and, on occasion, local patriotic organizations. (Merton 1957)

Role in functionalist and consensus theory

The functionalist approach, which is largely borrowed from anthropology, sees a "role" as the set of expectations that society places on an individual. By unspoken consensus, certain behaviours are deemed "appropriate" and others "inappropriate". For example, it is appropriate for a doctor to dress fairly conservatively, ask a series of personal questions about one's health, touch one in ways that would normally be forbidden, write prescriptions, and show more concern for the personal wellbeing of his clients than is expected of, say, an electrician or a shopkeeper.

"Role" is what the doctor does (or, at least, is expected to do), while status is what the doctor is. In other words, "status" is the position an actor occupies, while "role" is the expected behaviour attached to that position. Roles are not limited to occupational status, of course, nor does the fact that one is cast in the role of "doctor" during working hours prevent one from taking other on other roles at other times: husband, golf club president, father, and so on.

Roles can be semi-permanent ("doctor", "mother", "child"), or they can be transitory. A well-known example is the sick role as formulated by Talcott Parsons in the late 1940s. A person who is judged to be "sick" is exempted from his usual roles; is not held personally responsible for his incapacity; can only take on the sick role on condition that he wants to eventually get well and return to a "normal" role; and he must co-operate with his officially designated helpers (doctors and others). Its role is to develop the mind to easily understand the problem.

Role Conflict

Role conflict is a special form of social conflict that takes place when one is forced to take on two different and incompatible roles at the same time. Consider the example of a doctor who is himself a patient, or who must decide whether he should be present for his daughter's birthday party (in his role as "father") or attend an ailing patient (as "doctor"). (Also compare the psychological concept of cognitive dissonance.)

Often, two or more roles collide in certain situations. Take for example a father who is the coach of his son’s baseball team. The man takes on both the role of father and coach. If the boy makes a bad play in the game a father would be inclined to support and comfort his son, but a coach would be inclined to show the boy exactly what he did wrong. How does the man decide what to do? This collision represents role conflict where two roles in an individual's role set cannot cooperate in a specific social situation.

In the functionalist conception, role is one of the important ways in which individual activity is socially regulated: roles create regular patterns of behaviour and thus a measure of predictability, which not only allows individuals to function effectively because they know what to expect of others, but also makes it possible for the sociologist to make generalisations about society. Collectively, a group of interlocking roles creates a social institution: the institution of law, for example, can be seen as the combination of many roles, including "police officer", "judge", "criminal", and "victim".

Roles, in this conception, are created by society as a whole, are relatively inflexible, are more-or-less universally agreed upon, and individuals simply take their designated roles on and attempt to fulfil them as best they can. Although it is recognised that different roles interact ("teacher" and "student"), and that roles are usually defined in relation to other roles ("doctor" and "patient", or "parent" and "child"), the functionalist approach has great difficulty in accounting for variability and flexibility of roles, and finds it difficult to account for the vast differences in the way that individuals conceive different roles. Taken to extremes, the functionalist approach results in "role" becoming a set of static, semi-global expectations laid down by a unified, amorphous society: as simply prescriptions for correct behaviour. The distinction between "role" and norm and culture thus becomes sterile.

Although the classic functionalist approach to "role" is no longer regarded as an especially useful tool in the modern sociologist's approach to understanding societies, it remains a fundamental concept which is still taught in most introductory courses and is still regarded as important, particularly so when considering relatively homogeneous, united societies like the middle-class post-war USA that gave birth to it.

More broadly, "role", in the sense created by society, is a concept that has crossed over from academic discourse into popular use. It has become commonplace to speak of particular "roles" as if they were indeed fixed, agreed on by all, and uncontroversial: "the role of the teacher" or "a parent's role", for example. Notice that this everyday usage nearly always employs "role" in a normative way, to imply that "this is the proper behaviour" for a teacher or a parent, or even for an entire institution such as the government.

People in modern, high-income countries juggle many responsibilities demanded by their various statuses and roles. As most mothers can testify both parenting and working outside the home are physically and emotionally draining. Sociologists thus recognize role conflict as conflict among the roles corresponding to two or more statuses (Macionis 90).


A stereotype is "a standardized conception or image of a specific group of people or objects." To be more specific, stereotype can be based on age, gender, race, religion, vocation, nationality, places, and things. This view is rather common by the members of a group, for example: adults saying that teenagers are all rebellous. Stereotyping is, in fact, a "natural human function and is so common that it occasionally functions in a useful way" (Nachba 1992).

There are four characteristics to stereotypes. They are:

1. Simple: this being that a person or thing can be summarized in a sentence or two (Nachba 1992).

2. Acquired Secondhand: people in a society "absorb" the cultures views on others. This shows how that particular society views certain trends and traits (Nachba 1992).

3. Erroneous: this means that all stereotypes are false (Nachba 1992).

4. Resistant to change: even with racial laws, racial stereotypes still exist in society. They may not be accurate, but are still a part of society (Nachba 1992).

An example of stereotyping and racial judgement: in World War II, the native Germans viewed Jews as a threat to society. When the Holocaust took place, Germans were "indifferent" toward the countless slaughtering of the Jews (Goldhagen 1996). This stereotyping and utter rejection of the Jews can be seen as far back as 1524 with Martin Luther, who called the Jews "a plague, a pestilence, a sheer misfortune for our country (Germany)" (Time Life 1990).

Gender roles in society

Origin of gender roles

Gender roles first began in the Mesopotamian region at about the same time as civilization (around 8000 BCE). Originally, in the Paleolithic Era, men and women were treated equally. These nomadic family groups did not have any wealth simply because their prey migrated regularly. In fact, women contributed over 70% of daily food. However, in the Neolithic Era, men and women discovered agriculture and could gain wealth over their fellow men (Nagle 2006).

In these early societies, men took the role as judges, which was a task that was considered "an arena of public concern under male control" (Nagle). Women, however, was in charge of the family and household. To help them, women had their children, servants, and slaves (before the Neolithic Era, slaves did not exist) (Nagle 2006).

Egyptian gender roles

In the Egyptian society, women had a "high degree of freedom and were often able to function on much the same level as men." Egyptian women could own their own property, keep it during their marriage, and dispose of it. Women were also influential in politics. For example, when a pharaoh died, if his wife (the queen) was well liked among her followers, then she could take over as pharaoh (Nagle 2006).

Women were also seen in Egyptian religion. Female goddesses were not uncommon. Bastet, Isis, and Nephthys are just a few of these goddesses who had important roles in Egyptian religion and worship (Nagle 2006).

Greek gender roles

A Greek woman's power rested on a number of bases. First, she was one of the matrons of the polis. Second, she was part of two separate households: her natal household and her household that she formed with her husband. However, her power in her husband's household depended on her dowry. If she had an unimpressive dowry, her power in the family was less. A Greek woman could divorce her husband without going into poverty. All she had to do was return to her natal family so that her father could arrange the next marriage (Nagle 2006).

In Athens, men were viewed as the "defenders of the city and of their housholds." However, men, as well as women, had little to no choice of whom they would marry. Athenian women took care of the house and children. If they had a job, they tended to be vendors, nurses, midwives, bakers, or innkeepers (Nagle 2006).

In Sparta, women had far greater freedom than their Athenian counterparts. Spartan women were trained to be stronger than most women in other cultures. This is due to the need to keep the helots (Spartan slaves who made up most of the population) in check. In order to keep this mass population of slaves from rebelling, Spartans (men and women together) trained for most of their lives to be stronger than the helots in case of a rebellion (Nagle 2006).

The roles of women as represented in the Iliad:

The epic tale of the Iliad describes the tragic battle between the mortal warriors, their honor, and the gods persuading the mortals destinies. The battle raging between the Trojans and Greece was sparked by the mortal Paris carrying out a risky task. Traveling to Greece Paris is accepted as a visitor from Troy by the Greeks, but in return abducts the lovely Helen, daughter of Zues. By taking Helen, Paris showed his disrespect for women as though they are some type of prize. He takes her as though she is property instead of a human. Therefore, showing the inferiority of women during this time. The rest of the war is based on the sole fact that Greece needs to win Helen back. Considering that women weren't respected as leaders or intelligent beings during this time, the war based around winning Helen back shows her role as a prize rather than a woman (Iliad).

Roman gender roles

In Roman society, the role of the father was truly unique. If he was the oldest male in the household, his title was the paterfamilias, which meant that he had the "power of life and death over his children." Meaning that in certain circumstances, he could have his own children (young and old alike) executed. The paterfamilias was also the religious head in the household and was the property owner and ruler (Nagle 2006).

If a woman married under the manus form of matrimony, she was no longer a member of her own natal family. She was now a full member of her husband's family. However, if the woman chose not to perform the manus form of matrimony, she remained a member of her natal family, which also meant that she was still under the power of her paterfamilias (Nagle 2006).

The roles of women as represented by St. Thomas Aquinas on Politics and Ethics:

Women in the Roman Empire were seen as mere objects of reproduction. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, "it was necessary for woman to be made, as Scripture says as a ‘helpmate’ to man-not to help him in other work as some have said-since he can get more effective help from another man-but as a helpmate in procreation." Aquinas believed that women were a "misbegotten man." Women were simply put on earth by God as tools to help men create the perfect man. Aquinas says that through Gods creation of procreation, men and women are only meant to be "truly joined" during procreation. Women are inferior to the intelligence men were blessed with and were only created to assist men in ways that it is necessary for a women to be involoved (St. Thomas Aquinas on Politics and Ethics).

Early Christian gender roles

In the beginning, women played key roles in early Christian communities, however, as time passed, they lost their power in religious affairs. Men took over these tasks, like baptizing, exorcising demons, and preaching (Nagle 2006).

However, the common view that women are naturally inferior had to be dealt with since the Jewish and Christian beliefs showed that both men and women are equal in the eyes of God. In the Syrian Christian world, "great emphasis was placed on the role of Mary, the mother of Jesus" (Nagle 2006).

In the fifth century, female martyrs were shown as often as male martyrs. Their acts were celebrated in the same manner as the male acts (Nagle 2006).

The role of women as pertaining to the creation story from the Bible:

"So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man's ribs and closed up the place with flesh," Genesis 2:21. God first created man, Adam, and realizing he needed a suitable helper made the women, Eve, from his rib. And the man said, "This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called 'woman' for she was taken out of man," Genesis 2:23.

Modern gender roles

Every society has a number of gender roles and take measures to insure that their children know their place within society and their gender. Little boys, for example, are seen with blue blankets and are giving toy guns and tanks to play with. Girls, on the other hand, have pink blankets and their toys usually consist of dolls and plastic cooking items (Stark 2007).

Even with nicknames, gender is obvious. Boys tend to be called Butch or something similar. Girls have nicknames more along the lines of Sweetie, Honey, or Sugar. This is just one of the methods that parents use to ensure that their children "will be different" (Stark). In some societies, men are supposed to be aggressive and dominant, while women are gentle and submissive. Men go out and earn a living, while women stay at home and take care of the children. In some societies, it is "rare for women to have equal political rights in 60 percent of these societies, women have no political rights" (Stark 2007).

Gender roles and television

Even on television, gender roles are apparent. Men dominate the news, are usually main characters on sitcoms, and tend to be taken more seriously. Men who read the news tend to be "more believable than a women newsreader," according to preteen girls. The girls may also believe that a man on TV is "more powerful and knowledgeable" (Chandler).

Men also tend to outnumber women in drama by a 3:1 ratio. Even in children cartoons, male characters dominant females 10:1. When the characters have jobs, women are usually "housewives, mothers, secretaries, and nurses" while men "are shown as husbands and fathers, but also as athletes, celebrities and tycoons." Men usually have a higher status than women on TV shows (Chandler).

Role in interactionist or social action theory

In interactionist social theory, the concept of role is crucial. The interactionist definition of "role" pre-dates the functionalist one (which is a later borrowing from the same source), but is more fluid and subtle, and remains a more fruitful concept. Oddly enough for a concept which has been adopted by two of the three major branches of sociology and is central to a good deal of anthropology as well, the first systematic use of the term "role" was made by a philosopher, George Herbert Mead, in his seminal 1934 work, Mind, self and society.

A role, in this conception, is not fixed or prescribed but something that is constantly negotiated between individuals in a tentative, creative way. Mead's main interest was the way in which children learn how to become a part of society by imaginative role-taking. Children, wrote Mead, imitate the roles of the people around them and try them on to see how well they fit. This is always done in an interactive way: it's not meaningful to think of a role for one person alone, only for that person as an individual who is both co-operating and competing with others. Adults behave similarly: taking roles from those that they see around them, adapting them in creative ways, and (by the process of social interaction) testing them and either confirming them or modifying them. This can be most easily seen in encounters where there is considerable ambiguity, but is nevertheless something that is part of all social interactions: each individual actively tries to "define the situation" (understand their role within it); choose a role that is advantageous or appealing; play that role; and persuade others to support the role.

Role Theory

Role theory seeks to explain one of the essential features of social life, the characteristic behavior patterns, or roles. It is concerned with the fact that human beings behave in ways that are predictable and different depending on their respective social identities and social situations. Role theory explains the concept of roles by assuming that each person is a member of some social position and thus holds expectations for their own behaviors and subsequently the behaviors of other persons. There are five different perspectives of role theory in sociology: functional, symbolic interactionist, structural, organizational, and cognitive role theory.

There is a great deal of confusion within role theory, due to conflicting definitions and concepts. For example, some sociologists define role to refer to characteristic behaviors, while some use it to designate social parts that are played in society, and others focus their definition of role on the scripts for social conduct. Furthermore, there is disagreement in terms of the expectations that precede a role. To some, an expectation is synonymous with norms (or expected behaviors prescribed by society), while others believe that these expectations are beliefs, and finally, others see them as preferences, or attitudes. This difference in terminology subsequently generates differing versions of role theory. Nonetheless, despite these differences, the versions of role theory are similar in their approach to research and course of direction. For example, most versions of role theory agree that expectations are the major cause of roles, these expectations are learned through experience, and people are fully aware of these expectations as they proceed through their performance of society’s roles.

Functional Role Theory

Functional role theory focuses on the characteristic behaviors of those who have social position within a stable social system. "Roles" are the expectations that determine and explain these behaviors. Functional role theorists presume that the actors in the social situation have been taught these norms, will conform to these norms for their own conduct, and influence others to conformity for norms. Thus, the functional role theory not only explains the different parts of stable social systems but why these social systems are stable and how conformity in them is achieved.

Functional role theory has lost its dominance in American sociology. Its main criticism stems from the facts that not all roles are associated with social positions, that roles may or may not be associated with functions, that social systems are not stable, that norms are may or may not be shared within this unstable social system and as a result may or may not lead to conformity, and that roles may not only reflect expectations but cognitive processes as well.

Symbolic Interactionist Role Theory

The symbolic interactionist theory stresses the roles of individual actors, the development and evolution of these roles through social interaction, and various cognitive concepts through which actors comprehend and interpret their own conduct as well as the conduct of others. In symbolic interactionist role theory, norms provide a set of broad essentials within which the various roles can be worked out. Roles, then, reflect norms, attitudes, contextual demands, negotiation, and the continuing evolving of the social situation in which the actors find themselves and strive to understand.

Just like functional role theory, symbolic interactionist theory has also received criticism. Much of the criticism originates with fuzzy definitions and a lack of attention give to empirical research, or research which is observable through the senses. Furthermore, there is little discussion in the works of symbolic interactionist theorists to actors’ expectations and to the structural constraints placed upon expectations and roles. Finally, the emergence of expectations is not clearly defined in this theory—whether it expectations are assumed to generate, follow from, or to develop with roles.

Structural Role Theory

Structural role theory places an emphasis on "social structures", defined as stable organizations of sets of persons (called "social positions" or "statuses") who share the same patterned behaviors ("roles") which relate to the other actors in the same social structure. Unlike the functionalists, structuralists focus much more on the environment rather than the individual.

Structural role theory has yet to receive a large following within American sociology, largely due to the fact that the work completed in this field of research is generally expressed in mathematical symbols.

Organizational Role Theory

The organizational role theory focuses on social systems which are preplanned, task-oriented, and hierarchal. The roles in these organizations are associated with social positions and are spawned by norms, or expectations. However, these norms may vary with the individual and reflect the official demands of organizations as well as those of informal groups. The abundance of sources for norms produces role conflict. This conflict in turn causes role strain, and the theory examines the variables that affect the actor’s choice of strategies for handling the situation.

Just like the other role theories, organizational role theory is subject to criticism as well. The assumptions of the theory are limiting and exclude the study of evolving roles or roles that are not produced by normative expectations. Furthermore, the perspective of organizational role theory implies that the organizations are stable entities and any conflicts which arise in them are role conflicts and once the role conflict is resolved, the actor will inevitably be happy. Nonetheless, this role theory has produced the most empirical research out of all the other existing role theories.

Cognitive Role Theory

The cognitive role theory focuses on the relationship between behaviors and expectations. Cognitive role theorists have given attention to social conditions that influence the emergence of expectations, techniques for measuring these expectations, and the impact of these expectations on social conduct. Furthermore, they are concerned with how a social actor perceives the expectations of others and how those expectations influence their own behavior.

There are several subfields of cognitive role theory. The first is role playing, determined by Moreno (1934), which occurred when one social actor tries to imitate the behavior of another. Role playing occurs naturally in children and can be used as an aid in both education and therapy. The latter assertion has led to substantial research on the effectiveness of therapeutic role playing, many of which confirm the value of this technique. Role playing has also been found to be an effective way to produce changes in expectations.

The second subsection of cognitive role theory focuses on group norms and the roles of leaders and followers in these respective groups. Research in this area continues to develop.

The third subfield gives attention to the theories of anticipatory role theories. In this field, expectations are beliefs about likely conduct. Researchers in this field study both the subjects’ beliefs about their own behaviors and the behaviors of others. This sort of research has focused on counseling and the interpretation of mental illness, but in the 1980s the work shifted to extend the understanding of family interaction.

Finally, the fourth subfield focuses on role taking. This term is assumed to focus on others attribution of sophisticated thought to others. From research, sophistication is said to be more general among people who are older, wiser, and more mature.

Cognitive role theory has been criticized for its emphasis on modern American culture, its failure to explore the contextual limitations of effects, and it ignores human interaction. Furthermore, it focuses on the individual and thus ignores the role phenomena associated with social position and/or temporal and structural phenomena.

Key Concepts and Research


Consensus is a term used by role theorists to indicate agreement among expectations held by various persons. Functionalists first argued that social roles appear because persons in the social system share norms; people know what they should do, and all persons in the social system can be counted upon to support these norms. Thus, social systems are better integrated and interaction within them proceeds more smoothly.

However, the importance of consensus in role theory has been criticized, notably by role-conflict researchers and critical theorists. Role-conflict researchers have pointed out that assumptions made about consensus are sometimes weak, and critical theorists have questioned the usefulness of using consensus as the sole mechanism for building social order. These arguments have posed two questions that can be addressed through empirical research: to what extent do people actually agree upon norms and what factors affect their agreement? Is it true that the integration of social systems is facilitated by normative consensus and what factors influence this?

However, research in the past has not provided any satisfactory answers to these questions. Recent research on normative consensus is rediscovering the measurement issues and the criteria by which the existence of a social norm can be detected. Research on small groups has suggested that normative consensus is greater within long-lasting groups (Hollander, 1985). Consensus also appears likely when persons with easily identified social positions are asked about their norms (Deux 1984, Rossi & Berk 1985).


Conformity is the compliance to some pattern for behavior. Role theorists strive to answer the question: Why do persons imitate the behavior of others? Most role theorists explain conformity with the concept of expectation. They argue that the actions of others either lead one to form expectations which lead to conformity. As a result, the studies of role theorists involve the interaction between behaviors and expectations.

Although in the past it had been presumed that conformity was a good thing, leading to greater social integration and personal satisfaction when one conforms to the expectations of others and their own expectations, beginning in the 1960s, the value of nonconformity, creativity, and the questioning of established authority has greatly increased. Role theorists have also differed greatly in describing their relationships between behaviors and expectations. Thus, these issues have presented challenges that are to be addressed through empirical research. Some questions that have been raised are: How likely is it that people will conform to their own expectations and what factors dictate these actions? Why should people conform to expectations? What are the effects of conformity and will these effects appear?

The normative conformity theory states that people often hold norms concerning the behaviors of others. People are led to verbalize these norms or to pressure others into conforming to these norms, and as a result, people become aware of others norms and subsequently conform because they either believe that others are powerful and will punish them for not complying to the norms or they accept these norms. Studies have confirmed the likelihood of conformity to norms in small groups (Stein, 1982) and the reason for compliance to norms is because of others (Fishbeing & Ajzen 1975; van de Vliert 1979). In these instances, the conformity appears to be instrumental. That is, people have conformed because of the fear of punishment from powerful figures if conformity is not carried out.

Nonetheless, research has failed to deal with several critical issues. There is little evidence that people will actually sanction others for nonconformity concerning instrumental conformity. As far as internal conformity goes – the acceptance of norms by a person – there is little to no evidence about what determines the internalization of norms and the effects of this internalization.

Other role theorists argue that conformity occurs because of beliefs or because of preferential attitudes (when a person is exposed to another’s actions, the person forms preferences for behavior which leads to conformity). Thus, one of the questions facing role theory research today is what is a stronger generator of conformity: norms, beliefs, or preferential attitudes?

Role Conflict

Role conflict occurs when one does not hold expectations for one’s behavior and thus this behavior is perceived as incompatible. This leads to conflicting pressures and great stress which will eventually lead the person to resolve this conflict by adapting their behavior. Much research has been done in the area of role conflict, but recent research has focused on what the conflicts among expectations that are attributed to the person by others.

Studies have found role conflict is associated with poor job performance, lower commitment to the organization, and higher rates of accidents and resignations in the work place. Furthermore, women in western societies are subjected to conflicts between the expectation of their traditional role as homemakers and their desire to become part of the work force. Role theorists have concluded that role conflict is inevitably stressful and occurs frequently. However, role conflict has not yet been studied in many settings, so the scope of effects is rather narrow at the present time. Role conflict is one of the several structural conditions that are thought to cause problems in social systems, as well as role ambiguity (a condition in which expectations are incomplete or insufficient to guide behavior), role malintegration (when roles do not fit well together), role discontinuity (when the person must perform sequence of malintegrated roles), and role overload (when the person is faced with too many expectations). In addition, role conflict can occur when one has difficulty performing his or her role due to a lack of skill or dissimilarity between expectations and his or her personal traits.

van de Vliert (1979, 1981)concluded that three steps can be taken to avoid role conflict: 1) choice among norms, 2) if a choice is not possible, then a compromise among norms, and 3) removal from the situation. Research in role conflict has yet to explore several critical areas, such as how frequently one encounters role conflict and with which structural factors it is likely to be associated.

Role Taking

The theory of role taking, first introduced by Mead in 1934, suggests that one’s self-development and participation in social interaction requires one to "take the role of the other". It focuses on the importance of attributed expectations. Some scholars feel that successful role taking involves accuracy of attributed expectations – persons are more effective role takes when the attributed expectations of others match their own – while others believe that it involves sophistication of social thought – a person is a better role taker if he or she believes that others hold expectations that dictate the actions and thoughts of others. Research has been conducted in both areas.

Early studies of role-taking accuracy sought the trait of "empathy", defined as a general ability to judge persons’ expectations accurately. If one possesses such a trait, one would make a better group leader, counselor, therapist, or confessor. This technique received criticism in the 1950s, and thus this search has disappeared from the research field today. Later studies have involved research with the modes of expectation, finding that persons of low status and those chosen for group leadership have greater role-taking accuracy. Role-taking accuracy has been found to be low when the subject and others have constricted their communication. Research concerning accuracy of role-taking has been declining since the 1970s.

Research on the sophistication of role taking has revealed that role-taking sophistication is greater among old and more mature subjects, and also that role-taking sophistication correlates positively with altruism. There is speculation that role-taking sophistication is greater among women than men, but evidence to confirm this has not yet appeared. However, women and young girls have been found to exhibit more emotion when responding to the plights of others.

Research in role-taking has declined and, as seen in these examples, has often been flawed. Both areas suggest that role-taking ability varies among persons, but neither field has yet formulated much information about the positive effects of role taking for the individual and the greater social system. More research on role taking is necessary to establish the effects of role taking within social systems.

Issues and Propositional Theory

There is an absence of an explicit, explanatory, propositional for the role theory. This has been slow to develop due to the problems raised by the conceptual and definitional confusions. The field of role theory will greatly progress when agreed-upon definitions for basic concepts are adopted. Such a theory has also been slow to develop because of the weak developments found in empirical research. Basic research issues for role theory have not yet been fully researched.

Furthermore, role theorists disagree on whether to focus on the person as an individual or as a representative of a social position. Symbolic interactionists and cognitive theorists prefer to consider the person as an individual, while functionalists and structuralists prefer the latter application.

Role theory will prosper as researchers and theorists recognize the problems of role theory and expand their efforts to accommodate conflicting views and insights to develop an integrated version of the field.

See also

References & Bibliography

Key texts



  • Biddle, BJ. 1986. "Recent Developments in Role Theory". Annual Review of Sociology 1986. 12:67-92. [1]
  • Chandler, Daniel. "Television and Gender Roles". [2]

Additional material



External links

Goldhagen, Daniel Jonah. Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. Vintage Books, New York. 1996.

Time Life. The Twisted Dream. Time Life, Alexandria, Virginia. 1990.

Nachba, Jack and Lause, Kevin. The Meaning and Significance of Stereotypes in Popular Culture. Bowling Green University Popular Press. Bowling Green, Ohio. 1992. [3].

Nagle, Brendan D. The Ancient World" A Social and Cultural History Sixth Edition. Pearson Prentice Hall. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey. 2006.

Stark, Rodney. Sociology Tenth Edition. Baylor University. Thomson Wadsworth, California. 2007.

Merton, Robert K. British Journal of Sociology Eighth Edition. 1957. [4].

Macionis, John J. Eight Edition Society the Basics. Person Prentice Hall. New Jersey. 2006.

Main Frame: Strategies for Generating Social Norms News. 2002. [5]

Smith, Eliot. Social Psychology Third Edition. Psychology Press. New York. 2007. [6]

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