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Role Theory

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.

History, Diffrentiation, and Confusion

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).

Functionalist Role Theory

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.

Role Conflict and Organizational Analysis

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).

The Structural Perspective

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).

Role Theory among Symbolic Interactionalists

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.

Cognitive Perspectives in 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.

Recent Trends in Role Theory

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.

Role Theory and the Future

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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