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

By Sarah Fader

Updated August 24, 2019

Reviewer Kelly L. Burns, MA, LPC, ATR-P

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

Secondly, 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. Third, people define the physical objects and social constructs they encounter in the world according to their use for them.

As a frame of reference, Mead to the role players as actors, stating that to understand them, we must base our understanding on what people do. Three of the ideas presented by Mead is critical to the process of symbolic interaction.

  • The 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. (Ivan Noyle 1976)

The Influence of Structural Roles

Structural roles are defined as the roles society gives us. They include the roles of birth and place within the family hierarchy, gender roles, social status and economic roles. Structural roles include an expectation of behavior. In a structured, patriarchal family, a boy is a brother, an uncle, a father, a breadwinner, a major decision maker. The woman's role is one of nurturer, caregiver, secondary family support. In a matriarch society, the woman is the lead counsel.

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Status of society influences family and social roles. There is a higher expectation of good scholastic performance among children from professional or white-collar families than from the children of laborers. Children from strong religious backgrounds are expected to keep higher moral and ethical standards than children who have received no religious education.

Culture also plays an important dynamic in the establishment of structural roles. Cultural ties influence the position of the social hierarchy, gender roles, and the expectation of family and social behaviors.

The rules for behavior are defined within the structural roles. There is a clear line of authority, from the matriarch or patriarch to the educators to the church and community leaders. Violation results in punishment, either violent (bullying, corporal), verbal (shaming, name-calling) or restrictive (deprivation, isolation, exclusion). Family courts are often used to settle disputes connected with violations of structured role-playing.

The Changing Perception of Those Who Developed Social Role Theory as a way to Examine Social Interaction

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The developing social role theory focused on how well individuals adopt and act out their roles during the interaction. Individuals do not embrace all the identities associated with their roles. They vary to the extent to which they are committed or how much they identify with their roles. As an outcome of these interactions, individuals identify themselves or are identified by others as holding particular statuses or positions. (Stryker, 1968)

Opposed to the stasis of structured roles, social interaction produces dynamics that change the course of roleplaying over time. This is most noticeable at the political level. As individuals communicated their dissatisfaction with their social roles as minority members, they persuaded society to take another look their status, influencing a majority to vote for anti-discriminatory laws.

Social interaction studies not only how well individuals conform to their structured roles and how much they influence changes in identity, but also how individuals accept changing roles.

Accumulating and Simultaneous Roles

The day we are born, we play a role. In the familial context, we are either a son or a daughter. Simultaneously, we are a nephew, a niece, a grandchild, a brother or a sister. We accumulate additional roles by marrying, becoming either a wife or husband and by having children.

As we interact on the social level, we accumulate other simultaneous roles. A college-bound young man from a prominent family pursuing a mixed race relationship is simultaneously playing the roles of truculent son, student, lover and political activist. A woman PTA member who also works is simultaneously playing the roles of wife, mother, bread-winner and community leader.

One of the greatest areas of concern for modern psychologists is the subject of role overload and role conflict. Role overload is defined as the experience of lacking in resources, including time and energy, needed to meet all the simultaneous roles. Role conflict describes the incongruities between the expectations of one role and those of another. Role overload and role conflict can often lead to difficulties with meeting role expectations known as role strain. (Goode 1960)

Gender-Based Roles

The primary identifying factor in both our familial and social roles is our sex. There are established behaviors expected of gender. Girls are more nurturing, less aggressive. Boys are stronger and bolder. Those who developed role theory as a way to examine social interaction place special concentration on how much gender roles conform to structured expectations and how much they adapt and change the world around them.

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In recent years, much attention has been given to women in the workplace and how this effects gender role. Western European studies revealed women were staying in school longer and had babies later than they were before women began joining the workforce.

Much of a woman's ability to adapt to the work environment as one of her simultaneous roles has to do with culture. Other studies, including those found in Japan, Singapore, and China, found that women suffered stress, distress, and burn-out as a result of combining work and family roles.

Phyllis Moen (1992) studied the potential negative and positive consequences of women who acquired multiple roles as wife, mother, and provider and concluded multiple roles were either positive or negative depending on a variety of factors such as:

  • home and work conditions
  • ages and number of children
  • the degree of supportive family structure
  • the extent to which the woman feels herself a captive of her environment or committed to her role a mother and a working member

Role Balance

Stephen Marks and Shelley MacDermid (1996) determined that people who were able to participate in and perform a variety of different roles experience not only less role strain but also had lower rates of depression and higher self-esteem and innovation. Multiple roles are important for the development of personality and intellect. Luis Verbrugge (1983) found that women who hold the multiple roles of mother, wife and paid worker where healthier than women who held none or only some of the roles.

From Sociological Theory to Practical Psychology

The ongoing studies of those who developed role theory as a way to examine social interaction are used by professional family guidance counselors to help people cope with the expectations of their structured or changing roles. The focus is on how the individual perceives his or her place in society and the ability to grasp the reality of the world around him.

For many, the changes that come with new perceptions of role-playing, require adjustments to their views. A man whose wife has joined the work field may feel inadequate as a provider. Children of working parents may feel they are not receiving enough parental attention.

Many people find transitional roles painful. As youth grow into young adults, they are filled with uncertainty as to their place within society, especially if their options have been undefined. They may find traditional gender roles uninteresting and search for a new definition of their values and abilities.

Adult crisis roles include marriage, divorce, empty nest syndrome and old age. Each transitional point tests the identity of the actor and the ability to play the role. The person is challenged to adapt to a new perspective and develop positive familial and social interactions. Family counseling is used to help each family member adjust to the changes involved in the transitional role of the actor. The goal is to achieve healthy role balance.

Family counseling is readily available through clinics and family outreach programs. Online counseling is also provided for those who prefer the privacy of the home or have a pressing schedule. An easy to use program is Better Help, https://www.betterhelp.com/start/, which will guide you step by step on where to go to seek help.

How Social Role Theory Benefits You

Social role theory has been built on the empirical evidence of statistics and case studies. As role players change, along with their places in society, new perceptions are acquired as to identity and expectations of fulfillment for individual roles. Often, there are self-doubts and feelings of inadequacies in taking on a new role, especially in a family experiencing cultural and social changes.

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Its studies have demonstrated that we are happiest when we are comfortable with the roles we play, whether they are traditional, structured roles or changing roles based on interaction. Behavior counseling allows the individual to explore the multiple roles of his or her identity and bring clarity to how these roles affect the world around them.

Who developed a social theory as a way to examine social interaction?

Not just one, but a large number of people, beginning with an idea embedded in ancient philosophy and transcribed into scholarly papers by twentieth-century sociologists. Studies have grown rapidly over recent years as the influence of modern-day feminism and social networking continue to change perceptions about gender, social and cultural roles. Social role theory is one of our most valuable resources for understanding our identity within our multiple roles of family member, neighbor, student, co-worker, and place in the community.


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