Who Developed Role Theory As A Way To Examine Social Interaction?

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry, LMSW, J.D.
Updated December 1, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team
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Developing Your Own Identity And Sense Of Self Can Be Challenging

Although the theory of social roles has been around since the early days of Greek philosophers as a sociological concept, it has only existed since the 1930s.

Prominent works in sociological discourse are accredited to George Herbert Mead, Jacob L. Moreno, Talcott Parsons, and Ralph Linton. With his pragmatic work, "Mind, Self, and Society," George Herbert Mead is considered one of the founders of symbolic activism and the major leader in developing social role theory.

The Basics Of Social Role Theory

Role theory isn't a theory but a set of concepts and interrelated ideas that build the foundations for social sciences in general and the study of family relationships in particular. Mead contended that true reality did not exist in the "real world." It is actively created as we act in and toward the world.

This view of people and relationships suggests that people remember and base their knowledge of the world on what has been useful to them and are likely to alter their roles based on what no longer works for them. People may define the physical objects and social constructs they encounter in the world according to their use for and experiences of them.

As a frame of reference, Mead referred to the role players as actors, stating that to understand them, we must base our understanding on their actions. Three of the ideas presented by Mead are critical to the process of symbolic interaction. These include:

  • A focus on the interaction between the actor and the world.
  • A view of both the actor and the world as dynamic processes and not static structures.
  • The actor's ability to interpret the social world.

From this early construct, other sociologists and psychologists have built their scholarly works on behaviorism and social interaction. The numerous perspectives and terms developed around the word "role" became divided into two general approaches: structural and interactionist.

The Influence Of Structural Roles

Structural roles are defined as the roles society gives us. They might include the roles of birth and place within the family hierarchy, gender roles, social status, and economic roles. Structural roles also typically include an expectation of behavior. In a structured, patriarchal family, for instance, a boy may be considered a brother, an uncle, a father, a breadwinner, and a major decision-maker. 

Role assignments like these can lead to real and noticeable differences in expectations and behaviors from a person and those around them. For instance, there is generally a higher expectation of good academic performance among children from professional or white-collar families than children of blue-collar or lower-income households. Children from strong religious backgrounds are often expected to keep specific moral and ethical standards that might not apply to children without religious education.

Social Role Theory To Examine Social Interaction

The developing social role theory focused on how well individuals adopted and acted out their roles during interactions. Individuals do not necessarily embrace all the identities associated with their roles, though; the extent to which they are committed to identifying with the expectations placed on them can vary. As an outcome of these interactions, individuals may identify themselves or be identified by others as holding particular statuses or positions. 

Social interaction studies how well individuals conform to their structured roles, how much they influence changes in identity, and how individuals accept changing roles.


Accumulating Simultaneous Roles

The day we are born, we can quickly be trained to play a role. In the familial context, we are typically considered to be a child – the new baby, the new sibling, etc. Simultaneously, we may be seen as a nephew, a niece, or a grandchild. We might accumulate additional roles by making friends, pursuing different career paths, marrying, etc. and assuming the roles found within these contexts.

One of the greatest areas of concern for modern psychologists is the subject of role overload and role conflict:

  • Role overload: the experience of lacking resources, including time and energy, needed to meet all the simultaneous roles. 
  • Role conflict: the contradictions between the expectations of one role and those of another. When combined, role overload and conflict can often lead to difficulties in meeting expectations and developing a sense of personal identity.

It may be important to note that these theories were built on gender stereotypes and expectations that have since changed and shifted, further changing the expectations associated with roles. After all, one of the primary identifying factors in both familial and social roles, according to this framework, is a person's sex. Therefore, this type of social theory may be limited in scope and application simply because it relies on a binary way of identifying people (as fitting into one category or the other for any characteristic). 

From Sociological Theory To Practical Psychology

The ongoing studies of those who developed role theory to examine social interaction are often used by professionals to help people overcome expectations of their structured or changing roles. The focus is typically on how the individual perceives their place in society and their ability to grasp the reality of the world around them.

Regardless of how much truth is behind social role theory and what it teaches us about human interaction, it can help us understand how society can put us into boxes. Even if we reject or break out of these boxes, their existence can shape us significantly. Breaking out of a predetermined role instead of simply living without its weight can lead to two very different results.

For this reason and others, transitioning between one role to another can be especially challenging. It can make a person question their sense of identity rather than viewing the change as a natural part of maturing and growing into themselves. Research shows that social identity can play a key role in depression. Things like reaching adulthood, marriage, becoming a grandparent, and other life changes can feel scary because they might seem to threaten our image of who we are. 

When this occurs, getting some outside perspective and support can be highly beneficial. Finding a sense of who you are, that's not reliant on what other people assume or assign to you can be challenging, though, perhaps due to the prevalence of behaviors described by social role theory. Fortunately, there are some things you can do to find guidance. Online counseling, for example, can be a great way to speak to someone who understands your experiences without leaving your own home. It can also be more cost-effective, making it easier to pursue consistent support. 

One review of 17 studies on online cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for depression found it may be more effective than in-person counseling.

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Developing Your Own Identity And Sense Of Self Can Be Challenging


Who developed a social theory as a way to examine social interaction? Not just one, but many people, beginning with an idea embedded in ancient philosophy and transcribed into scholarly papers by twentieth-century sociologists. Social role theory can be one of our most valuable resources for understanding our identity, but it doesn't have to define who we are. Finding the right support and resources to help you reflect on your own identity may help you discover not who you were meant to be but who you want to be, which can be incredibly freeing.

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