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.
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.
What is meant by role theory?
Role theory is defined by the American Psychological Association (APA) as:
"A conceptual explanation of social behavior that assumes individuals' actions are defined, in part, by the role they occupy in a relationship, such as father, daughter, group member, leader, employee, boss, and so on. The theory suggests that by enacting roles, individuals establish exchange relationships with one another, building interdependence that is essential for social coordination."
What is the goal of role theory?
Role theory aims to explain how social expectations, norms, and structures influence individuals' behavior within specific social contexts. By examining roles, expectations, and the interplay between individuals and their social environments, role theory seeks to understand how these factors shape human interactions, identities, and behaviors.
What are the benefits of role theory?
Role theory offers many benefits and insights within the context of human psychology and social interaction. Some of the benefits, according to the role theory perspective, include:
- It explains individuals' behaviors within specific social contexts by emphasizing that people act according to the expectations, norms, and responsibilities of the roles they assume.
- It guides how individuals may behave in certain situations based on the social norms and expectations associated with particular roles.
- Role theory contributes to social order by providing a framework for behavior. When individuals understand and adhere to their roles, it can lead to stability and cohesion within the social system.
- It can guide personal growth by encouraging individuals to understand their world and social life roles, align them with personal values, and manage potential conflicts between different roles.
- Structural role theory may help a society or group to productively address conflicts arising from role ambiguity, role strain (where fulfilling multiple roles becomes challenging), or role conflict (where different roles have conflicting expectations).
- It can be valuable for establishing role expectations and hierarchies within teams or departments in organizational settings. It can also help managers design roles that align with organizational goals and reduce role ambiguity.
- Role theory helps in understanding how societal changes affect roles and vice versa, contributing to discussions about social progress and transformation.
What makes role theory different from other theories?
Role theory shares similarities with other social theories seeking to explain the interconnectedness between individual behavior and social structure.
It is different, however, because it isn't technically a theory but a dynamic concept of how humans continuously shape their identities according to their roles in society and vice versa. This active process has a wide-reaching impact on the establishment of the self, the construction of societal norms, and the development of relationship models.
Why was role theory developed?
Role theory was developed to analyze the multi-faceted relationship between the individual, how they identify with their role in society, and how that role fits into a societal framework.
What is an example of role theory in social work?
One of the most commonly cited expressions of role theory is the concept of how cultural norms inform gender roles. For example, in many societies, a mother is a woman who raises the children and cares for the home as her primary responsibility. With societal changes redefining what it is to be a woman or her role in society, the label "mother" may exclude gender and include working outside the home and sharing childcare/household responsibilities with her mate.
What are the three elements of role theory?
The three elements of role theory include:
- The expectation (role) of a person based on their social position.
- The individual's interpretation of their role.
- The interaction between the role and society as a changing, dynamic process.
What are the basic assumptions of role theory?
Role theory is functional under the assumption that individuals adopt and follow the roles set for them according to society's normative expectations.
What is role theory in leadership?
Within a business context, role theory in leadership refers to how individuals within an organization define their roles and those of others, their understanding of where they fall within the hierarchy of the organization, the impact that position has on role-making, how group members act within those roles, and the expectations assigned to those roles by the organization.
How does role theory inform research?
Role ideation has inspired research in many ways, including studies on conformity, reference groups, role conflict, role-taking, and cognitive role theory. These concepts can be applied across platforms, from societal structures to familial composition to business organizations.
Newer research in role theory aims to revise concepts formed in earlier research to reflect more updated interpretations of societal roles. Role theorists also study the potential negative outcomes of role theory as associated with racism and gender stereotypes.
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