This article is about the sociology term. For the performing arts term, see Character (arts).
For other uses, see Role (disambiguation).

A role (also rôle or social role) is a set of connected behaviours, rights, obligations, beliefs, and norms as conceptualized by people in a social situation. It is an expected or free or continuously changing behaviour and may have a given individual social status or social position. It is vital to both functionalist and interactionist understandings of society. Social role posits the following about social behaviour:

  1. The division of labour in society takes the form of the interaction among heterogeneous specialised positions, we call roles.
  2. Social roles included appropriate and permitted forms of behaviour, guided by social norms, which are commonly known and hence determine the expectations for appropriate behaviour in these roles.
  3. Roles are occupied by individuals, who are called actors.
  4. When individuals approve of a social role (i.e., they consider the role legitimate and constructive), they will incur costs to conform to role norms, and will also incur costs to punish those who violate role norms.
  5. Changed conditions can render a social role outdated or illegitimate, in which case social pressures are likely to lead to role change.
  6. The anticipation of rewards and punishments, as well as the satisfaction of behaving prosocially, account for why agents conform to role requirements.

The notion of the role is examined in the social sciences, more specifically economics, sociology and organisation theory.

Determinants and characteristics

Roles may be achieved or ascribed or they can be accidental in different situations. An achieved role is a position that a person assumes voluntarily which reflects personal skills, abilities, and effort. An ascribed role is a position assigned to individuals or groups without regard for merit but because of certain traits beyond their control, (Stark 2007), and is usually forced upon a person.

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 their usual roles, but is expected to conform to transitory behavioural 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 ordinarily take the biological role of mother. Other roles require training or experience. For instance, in many cultures doctors must be educated and certified before practising medicine.

Role development can be influenced by a number of additional factors, including social, genetic predisposition, cultural or situational.

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 (Merton 1957). For example, a high school football player carries the roles of student, athlete, classmate, etc.

Role theory

Main article: Role theory

Role theory is the sociological study of role development, concerned with explaining what forces cause people to develop the expectations of their own and others' behaviours.[1] According to sociologist Bruce Biddle (1986), the five major models of role theory include:[1]

  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 behaviour,
  3. Structural Role Theory, which emphasises the influence of society rather than the individual in roles and utilises mathematical models,
  4. Organizational Role Theory, which examines role development in organisations, and
  5. Cognitive Role Theory, which is summarised by Flynn and Lemay as "the relationship between expectations and behaviours"[2]

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, an appropriate doctor dresses fairly conservatively, asks a series of personal questions about one's health, touches one in ways that would normally be forbidden, writes prescriptions, and shows more concern for the personal wellbeing of his or her 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 on other roles at other times: husband/wife, friend, father/mother, 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.[3] 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 behaviour 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 behaviour is likely to be guided by group norms alone. But while group norms have a powerful effect on behaviour, they can only guide behaviour when they are activated by obvious reminders or by subtle cues. People adhere to social norms through enforcement, internalisation, the sharing of norms by other group members, and frequent activation (Smith 2007). 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 behaviour

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 behaviour (directly or indirectly). The theory of planned behaviour intentions are a function of three factors: attitudes about the behaviour, social norms relevant to the behaviour, and perceptions of control over the behaviour. When attitudes and norms disagree, their influence on behaviour will depend on their relative accessibility.

Team role theory

As described in Working in Groups by Engleberg and Wynn, team role theory is when "members assume roles that are compatible with their personal characteristics and skills". Meredith Belbin, a psychologist, first explored the concept of team-role theory in the 1970s when he and his research team went about observing teams and wanted to find out what made teams work and what did not. According to Belbin and his research team "the research revealed that the difference between success and failure for a team was not dependent on factors such as intellect, but more on behavior" (Belbin). They began to identify separate clusters of behaviors and found that behavior was more influential on a team than anything else. These separate clusters of behaviors are known as the "Team Roles". The nine "team roles" are as follows: coordinator/chairperson, shaper, innovator, resource investigator, monitor/evaluator, implementer, teamworker, completer/finisher, and specialist.

Role conflict and role confusion

See also: Role conflict

There are situations where the prescribed sets of behaviour that characterise 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.[4] 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.

Role enhancement

Role enhancement or role enrichment refers to a situation in which roles which are held by a person are compatible and moreover enacting one role has beneficial spillover effects on the enactment of the other role. An example which has been studied in depth is the enhancement among roles of breadwinner and caretaker (work–family enrichment).[5] Some evidence indicates that role conflict and role enhancement can occur simultaneously,[6] and further evidence suggests that mental health correlates with low role conflict and high role enhancement.[7][8] Also certain personality traits, in particular traits linked to perceiving and seeking greater levels of support, are associated with lower inter-role conflict and increase inter-role enrichment.[9]

Documenting roles

In business, documenting roles on process models, such as BPMN diagrams as swim lanes, is becoming common practice in large companies (50% of European and North American companies reported a "significant" or "strategic" commitment[10]). This documentation helps organisations undertaking change projects to formally define the current or envisioned (future) roles expected to be responsible for a business process.

See also


  1. 1 2 Biddle, B.J. (1986). "Recent Developments in Role Theory". Annual Review of Sociology. 12: 67–92. doi:10.1146/
  2. Flynn, Robert John; Raymond A. Lemay (1999). A Quarter-Century of Normalization and Social Role Valorization: Evolution and Impact. University of Ottawa Press. p. 224. ISBN 0-7766-0485-6.
  3. Mead, George H. (1934). Mind, Self, and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  4. 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.
  5. Jeffrey H. Greenhaus, Gary N. Powell, When Work and Family are Allies: A Theory of Work-Family Enrichment, The Academy of Management Review, Vol. 31, No. 1, January 2006
  6. Beth Tiedje, Linda; Wortman, Camille B.; Downey, Geraldine; Emmons, Carol; Biernat, Monica; Lang, Eric (1990). "Women with Multiple Roles: Role-Compatibility Perceptions, Satisfaction, and Mental Health". Journal of Marriage and Family. 52 (1): 63. doi:10.2307/352838. JSTOR 352838.
  7. Grzywacz, Joseph G.; Bass, Brenda L. (2003). "Work, Family, and Mental Health: Testing Different Models of Work–Family Fit" (PDF). Journal of Marriage and Family. 65 (1): 248–261. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2003.00248.x.
  8. Work-Family Role Conflict, 2003, Sloan Work and Family Research Network Encyclopedia
  9. Friede Westring, Alyssa; Marie Ryan, Ann (2010). "Personality and inter-role conflict and enrichment: Investigating the mediating role of support". Human Relations. 63 (12): 1815–1834. doi:10.1177/0018726710371236.
  10. Harmon, Paul and Wolf, Celia The State of Business Process Management: 2008, Business Process Trends, February 2008


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