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A role (sometimes spelled rĂ´le as in French) or a social role is a set of connected behaviors, rights and obligations as conceptualized by actors in a social situation. It is an expected behavior in a given individual social status and social position. It is vital to both functionalist and interactionist understandings of society.Social role posits the following about social behavior:
  1. People spend much of their lives in group.
  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.

Determinants and characteristics of social role

Roles may be achieved or ascribed. An achieved role 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. An ascribed role is a position assigned to individuals or groups without regard for merit but because of certain traits beyond their control . Roles are forced upon the individual.

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. In the transitory "sick role", a person is exempted from his usual roles, but expected to conform to transitory behavioral standards, such as following doctors' orders and trying to recover.

For many roles, individuals must meet certain conditions, biological or sociological. For instance, a boy cannot take the biological role of mother. Other roles require training or experience. For instance, in many cultures doctors must be educated and certified prior to practicing medicine.

Role development can be influenced by a number of additional factors, including social, genetic predisposition, cultural or situational.
  • 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.
  • Genetic predisposition: 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).
  • 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 Statesmarker, where soccer is less popular.
  • Situational influence: Roles can be created or altered based on the situation a person is put in outside their own influence.

Roles are also frequently interconnected in a role set, that complement of role-relationships in which persons are involved by virtue of occupying a particular social status . For example, a high school football player carries the roles of student, athlete, classmate, etc.

Role theory

Role theory is the sociological study of role development, concerned with explaining what forces cause people to develop the expectations they do of their own and others' behaviors. According to sociologist Bruce Biddle (1986), the five major models of role theory include:
  1. Functional Role Theory, which examines role development as shared social norms for a given social position,
  2. Symbolic Interactionist Role Theory, which examines role development as the outcome of individual interpretation of responses to behavior,
  3. Structural Role Theory, which emphasizes the influence of society rather than the individual in roles and utilizes mathematical models,
  4. Organizational Role Theory, which examines role development in organizations, and
  5. Cognitive Role Theory, which is summarized by Flynn and Lemay as "the relationship between expectations and behaviors"

Role in functionalist and consensus theory

The functionalist approach to role theory, 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, friend, father, and so on.

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. A role, in this conception, is not fixed or prescribed but something that is constantly negotiated between individuals in a tentative, creative way. Philosopher George Herbert Mead explored roles in his seminal 1934 work, Mind, self and society . Mead's main interest was the way in which children learn how to become a part of society by imaginative role-taking, observing and mimicking others. 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.

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. 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.But while group norms have a powerful affect on behavior, they can only guide behavior when they 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 . Norms can be enforced through punishment or reward. Individuals are rewarded for living up to their roles (i.e. students getting an "A" on their exam) or punished for not completing the duties of their role (i.e. a salesman is fired for not selling enough product).

Social norm theory has been applied as an environmental approach, with an aim of influencing individuals by manipulating their social and cultural environments. It has been widely applied using social marketing techniques. Normative messages are designed for delivery using various media and promotional strategies in order to effectively reach a target population. Social norms theory has also been successfully applied through strategies such as curriculum infusion, creating press coverage, policy development, and small group inventions.(Main Frame 2002)

The theory of planned behavior

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). 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.

Role conflict and role confusion

There are situations where the proscribed sets of behavior that characterize roles may lead to cognitive dissonance in individuals. 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. For example, a person may find conflict between her role as a mother and her role as an employee of a company when her child's demands for time and attention distract her from the needs of her employer. Similarly, role confusion occurs in a situation where an individual has trouble determining which role he or she should play, but where the roles are not necessarily incompatible. For example, if a college student attending a social function encounters his teacher as a fellow guest, he will have to determine whether to relate to the teacher as a student or a peer.


  1. Hammer, Leslie and Cynthia Thompson. (2003-05-12) Work-Family role conflict Encyclopedia. Sloan Family Work and Research Network, Boston College. Retrieved 2008-09-08.


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See also

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