Role Theory

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We play many roles, acting differently in one role from how we act in another. For hundreds of years, intellectual thinkers have contemplated the oddity of our shifting personalities that adapt to the variety of expected roles of our immediate surroundings. Role theory examines human interaction within the wider perspective of society.

Role theory gives structure to the broad concept of role play. However, because the concept of social roles is so far reaching, the theory is very general in nature, lacking the exactness typically required for sound research. Social scientists have identified some common components, defined terms, and provided great insights.

Early References to Roles

​Carl Jung wrote in his autobiography about a childhood discovery he made “in the course of associating with my rustic schoolmates. I found that they alienated me from myself. When I was with them I became different from the way I was at home” (2011).

​Sigmund Freud refers to the restriction of individual impulses to become a part of the cultural norm in his masterpiece Civilization and Its Discontents. He wrote, “great cultural victory was thus a reward for refraining from gratification of an instinct” (2018). 

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) is not so kind. He prefers the concept of ‘mask’ as opposed to ‘roles.’ He repeatedly refers to the masking of the true self in efforts to appease the outer world. 

If one takes hold of these masks, believing he has to do a serious thing and not a mere puppet show…he will find nothing but rags and colored streamers in his hands…one might have thought that history encouraged men above all to be honest, even if they were only honest fools… personalities can be seen no more, but merely men in uniform, with coats anxiously pulled about their ears.

​(Nietzsche, 2019)

​​​We play roles in society. Civilization would collapse if everybody acted on impulse. Not all impulses are gracious or virtuous. In the interest of the general wellbeing of all, we suppress and conform by slipping into expected norms and fulfilling roles within our environments.

Some of the early pioneers in role theory are:

  • Talcott Parsons (1902-1979)
  • Robert K. Merton (1910-2003)
  • George Herbert Mead (1863-1931)

​​The Six Propositions of Role Theory

Role theory proposes six basic rules motivating social behavior:

  1. There exists a division of roles in society;
  2. Social roles define “appropriate” and “permitted” forms of behavior. Roles are formed according to social norms. The rules of appropriate role behavior are referred to as expectations;
  3. Roles are occupied by individuals. Role theory  refers to the individuals filling a role as “actors”;
  4. When individuals approve of a social role, they will sacrifice impulses to conform to role norms, and will punish those who violate the role norms;
  5. Roles may dynamically change with environments. Changed conditions may outdate some social roles, rendering them ineffective.
  6. Prediction of acceptance and rejection, and internal and external rewards for behaving in prosocial ways, motivate actors to conform to role expectations.

​Fundamental Components Essential to Role Theory

Role theory does not have a generally agreed upon definition. Scientist hotly debate the individual components of role theory. There is some consensus; but only to generalities. Since role theory is used in a wide array of social contexts (citizen, employee, father, spouse, etc…), its difficult to define the basic concepts of role theory in a manner that applies to every context.


Role refers to the specific characteristics assigned to a defined part. A role contains specific scripts for behavior within a certain position. “A role is a set of expectations about how a person in a given position in a particular social system should act” (LaRocco, 1978).

Expectations and position are common concepts included in most definitions of roles within role theory.

Talcott Parsons, one of the early giants of role theory, defined role slightly different. He defined a role as “what the actor does in his relations with others seen in the context of its functional significance for the social system” (Parsons, 1951, p.25).

Specific roles, however, create more of a challenge. Roles are not always clearly defined. A job position and expected responsibilities is simple. Many roles in society are not explicit nor are they consistent. Expectations of a role may vary from one environment to another.

​There are many categories of social roles:

  • culturally defined roles (e.g. neighbor, citizen, etc…)
  • employment roles (e.g. supervisor, doctor, police officer, etc…)
  • situation-specific roles (e.g. voter, customer, patient, etc…) 
  • bio-sociological roles (e.g. human, Caucasian, etc…)
  • gender roles (e.g. man, woman, mother, father, etc…)​

Ascribed Roles

Ascribed roles are the roles which we have no control over such as age, sex, or ethnic origin. We inherit our roles. Although roles are biologically defined, cultural expectations are placed on these roles, imposing unfair restrictions, unfairly burdening large segments of society. Societal expectations largely defines ascribed roles.

Many political movements push towards redefining entrenched expectations of ascribed roles, while others stubbornly cling to archaic interpretations, fearing that by changing expectations of other roles, the changes will also redefine (decrease the value) of their own role in society.

Achieved Roles

Achieved roles are obtained through individual effort. While ascribed roles may influence the opportunity and resources available, achieved roles are individually obtained (LaRocco, 1978).

Role Expectation

Role expectations are the major factor in the creation of roles. Expectations are bidirectional, meaning both the actor in the role and other players interacting with the individual in the role have expectations based on the role (Biddle, 1986, p. 69).

Roles and role expectation are intimately intertwined. It is the expectations that create the roles. Whether those expectations are explicit or generally understood by the primary stakeholders that are filling roles or interacting with that particular role.

Roles are defined by the expectations. In a recent article the researchers wrote, “a role represents a core set of behavioral expectations tied to a social group or category that defines appropriate and permitted forms of behavior from group members (Anglin, et al., 2022, p. 1,470).

Expectations are not always clearly defined. Often the expectations are vague, not clearly agreed upon by significant stakeholders creating conflict, creating stress, inviting defensive or coping responses. 

Sent Role Expectations

Role expectations are sent in a number of ways. Typically, expectations are not clearly defined because no one knows exactly what they are. We just know that certain behaviors arouse emotions, and, therefore, expose an unmet expectation. The differences sets up a role conflict.

Received Role Expectations

We receive role expectations through a blend of present communication (verbal and non-verbal) and past experience. Our experience organizes current information into preconceived notions of expectations.

​Neil Rheiner explains ” how individuals define roles is a function of that self which has been developing throughout life” (1982, p. 20). The person or persons holding expectations may be defining expectations on a much different historical perspective. B.J. Biddle suggests that expectations can be expressed through norms, preferences, or beliefs. Often these occur simultaneously (1986, p. 75).

Role Episode

A role episode is a specific role behavior performed in response to sent and received role expectations. 

Role Set

Roles, such as father, is not defined by the wider social community, rather the role is defined by invested players to the individual filling the role. Certainly, the society imposes some expectations on fathers, however, the significant role set are those most impacted by the individual filling the role of the father (spouse and children). The significant stake holders are the role set for a particular role.

Typically, members of the role set communicate expectations to the role holder. Sometimes through direct orders (supervisor to worker), other times through expressions of approval or disproval (spouse, colleagues, subordinates).

Within a role set, we receive continuous feedback that allows for refining role behavior and aligning behavior with expectations.


Conformity connotes compliance to some pattern of behavior. In role theory, conformity is performing the expected behaviors for the position. Much of social theory research and writing assumes that conformity is a good thing (Biddle, 1986. p. 79). Of course, the good and evil of conformity depends on the context

Conformity to roles we willingly take, and desire to ethically fill with confidence, are a completely different than socially ascribed roles which are infused with immoral and unethical norms. Conformity to these norms has led to historical evils of blind role following.

However, the roles we consciously and reflectively choose because of the rewards of successfully filling those roles, conformity to the expectations is often part of the agreement.


Consensus refers to agreement of expectations among the various persons that comprise the role set. If I am a high school teacher, the role set would include school administration, students, parents, and other teachers, as well as my own expectations for my self in the role as a teacher.

A consensus would be when all these different factions agree on the expectations they have for me as a teacher.

Often there is not consensus. Different stakeholders have different priorities. Often we find that by fulfilling some expectations, we are incapable of fulfilling other expectations. These conflicts in expectation lead to the common occurrence of ‘role conflict.’

Role Conflict

Several types of role conflict:

Role Conflict Stemming from Role Definers

A common type of role conflict is from varying and clashing expectations from the various stakeholders within the role set. These conflicts create stress at the very core, making role fulfillment difficult. Ivey and Robin describe these conflicts as the “situations in which legitimate role definers disagree about the normative content of the role” (Ivey & Robin, 1966, p. 30).

Role Conflict Internal to the Role

These conflicts occur when the role definers may agree on expectations but the expectations conflict, creating an impossible task for filling all the expectations. These internal role conflicts are common. Often the expectations rise from ideals that violate natural laws. A teacher cannot unilaterally support uninhibited self expression and strict rules of behavior. They conflict, and must be balanced with concessions and modification of expectations.

Dangerously, many of those assigned to fill a role with incompatible expectations may repeatedly try and fail. The failures, instead of pointing to incompatibility in expectations, may damage self-esteem and motivation.

Role Conflict Stemming in Interaction with the Social System

Sometimes it is the wider social system that inhibits successful filling of roles. The legislator notoriously “establishes” expectations of businesses and local governments that are not feasible within the existing social system. New laws and regulation often conflict with the available resources to fulfill the expectation.

Research may discover effective drug treatment programs that remarkably decrease recidivism of individuals convicted of low level crimes. Legislator creates law to enact drug treatment, but fails to provide sufficient resources. Stakeholders implement fragmented programs that fail to achieve the expectations of the role definers (legislators).

These conflicts exact an expensive toll on systems as they throw many at ineffective programs.

Role Conflict Stemming from the Interaction of the Individual and Their Role

These conflicts refer to the situations where the role definers expectations exceed the abilities and capacity of those filling the roles. We refer to this as role overload (Ivey & Robin, 1966).

All types of role conflict creates stress. When one fails to fulfill expectations, internal and external conflicts arise. Satisfying role expectations is cognitively easier for everyone. Reality falls in line with prediction and the system marches smoothly forward.

Role Taking

Role taking was first introduced by George Herbert Mead (1934). the concept of role-taking refers to cognitively taking the role of another. A concept similar to the psychology term “theory of mind.”

Mead introduced role taking in 1934. Role taking allows a person to temporarily separate themselves from the perspective of their current position and view the world from a role filled by someone else. Accordingly, we expand our ability to understand expectations and how expectations are received with this practice in empathy.

General Areas of Research in Role Theory

Role theory research has taken several different perspectives, examining the roles individuals take and the large and small impacts these roles have on individual and societal stability. Five of the most common perspectives are:

Functional Role Theory

The work of Ralph Linton introduced the functional approach to Role theory. In his book, The Study of Man, he dedicated a chapter to ‘status and roles.’ Linton explains that “status  and  role  serve  to  reduce  the  ideal  patterns  for social  life  to  individual  terms.  They  become  models  for  organizing the  attitudes  and  behavior  of  the  individual  so  that  these  will be  congruous  with  those  of  the  other  individuals  participating  in the  expression  of  the  pattern” (1936, p. 114).

Talcott Parsons formalized functional Role theory. Functional role theory focuses on “the characteristic behaviors of persons who occupy social positions within a stable social system” (Biddle, 1986, p. 70). Functional role theory describes roles as a necessary component of a stable social system. “Actors in the social system have presumably been taught these norms and may be counted upon to conform to norms for their own conduct” and to sanction others for failing to conform to norms in their roles within society (p. 70).

Functional role theory views social structures as collections of “designated social positions, and shared norms” which govern the behaviors of members of a stable society.

Overall, functional role theory was the dominant perspective in role theory until the mid 1970’s.

Symbolic Interactionist Role Theory

Another popular perspective of role theory is symbolic interactionist role theory. While functional role theory primarily focused on how roles contributed to a stable society, symbolic interactionist role theory concentrated  on the individual actors in role theory.

This perspective is interested in “the roles of individual actors, the evolution of roles through social interaction, and various cognitive concepts through which social actors understand and interpret their own and others’ conduct” (p. 71).

In symbolic interactionalist role theory researchers do not see norms as uncrossable barriers, protected by punishment and censure. We see norms as broadly defined imperatives. Evidently, actual roles may reflect norms, attitudes and contextual demands, however, they are flexible to negotiations, and evolving expectations as defined by key players in the role set.

As a result of the research of actors and evolving roles, “symbolic interactionalist have made strong contributions to our understanding of roles in informal interaction, and their writings are replete with insights concerning relationships among roles, role taking, emotions, stress, and self concept” (p.71).

Structural Role Theory

Structural role theory is a “mathematically expressed, axiomatic theory concerning structured role relationships” (p. 72). Structural role theory requires a set of clear terms for analysis. In a study of worker’s judgement, the study engineer clearly identified the terms of tasks, positions, and persons. From these clear definitions, the researchers were able to calculate large quantities of data to sustain or disprove their theories (Trahair, 2016, p.99).

Structural role theory never achieved a large following, therefore, we have limited research from this particular perspective.

Organizational Role Theory

Like many fields of study, the most empirical work comes from capitalist money that supports corporation efficiency. Organizational role theory is designed to best understand social systems that are “preplanned, task-oriented, and hierarchical” (Biddle, 1986, p. 73).

While organizational role theory may apply to a wide range of organizations, from churches to student counsels, the flow of research is typically financed by profit driven business. Organizational role theory researches position interactions, role conflict, and role conflict resolution. When roles interact smoothly, organizations prosper.

Cognitive Role Theory

Cognitive role theory takes a much different approach. This work focuses on “relationships between role expectations and behavior.” Biddle explains that in cognitive role theory “attention has been given to the social conditions that give rise to the expectations, to techniques measuring expectations, and to the impact of expectations on social conduct” (Biddle, 1986, p. 74).

The pressures of social systems on individual cognitions creates an intriguing dynamic that cognitive role scientists explore. Of particular interest, is the transmitting and receiving of expectations.

Cognitive role theory may also examine the impact of roles, and role expectations on personal wellness, sense of self, self-esteem, and personal determination.

Roles and Autonomy

Filling roles creates an interactional dynamic between the individual and the social structure. Many philosophers have directed attention to this tension, expanding on Nietzsche’s mask analogy and human duplicity. 

The basic philosophy suggests that filling a role contradicts intrinsic motivation. “Role playing always involves a fundamental tension between the secret desires of the human being and the limitations on the organism  by organized life within the ‘human herd'” (Kaplan & Weiglus, 1979). Basically, the alarm sounding is warning of loss of self. Roles pull us in and we drown in everyday phoniness. We proclaim ethical self determination but our words are just moral hypocrisy.

​Ralph H. Turner in his wonderful paper on the ‘Real Self’ explains, “behaviors thought to reveal the true self are also ones whose causes are perceived as residing in the person rather than the situation” (1976). Regardless, the ‘true self’ may be just a cleaver concept to help us act morally when the other part of ourselves wants to burn the town down. We crown the better desires as “true” while labeling the rascal ones as “invaders.” Perhaps, this is permissible if it blesses our lives and improves the world.

We Always Exist in the Context of a Role

The problem is this. We never existed except within context of a relationship with others. For example, Carl Jung’s musings of being a different person with his peers than with his mother doesn’t refer to one or the other being his ‘true-self.’ We are social creatures. Consequently, we display our complexity through variations within our different roles.

While we cry about losing our self to the role, yet, we never knew ourselves outside of a role. Even the simplicity of self in a role does disservice because typically we are filling several roles simultaneously. When I share wisdom with my grandson, I’m playing the role of grandfather. However, I may be aware my wife is watching, and look over to giver her a wink; simultaneously, I play the role of the beloved papa and life partner.

There is a great structure of individuality as we balance the infinite roles of life. No role completely strangles individuality out of our lives. We fill expectations and still have room for self expression. Through self awareness and deep reflection, we may identify roles that need to be challenged, changed or abandoned. Even if our individual efforts may or may not impact long standing traditions. but sometimes we must buck the system and voice our opposition.

The Individual and Society

Unfortunately, some proclaim that individuality must prevail in every situation. Yet, I have yet to hear these arguments from someone that doesn’t live off the fruits of a functioning social system, built upon individuals playing roles. I play roles because the roles provide me with some of my deeper desires. Basically, I need a stable society that is predictable so I can navigate the twists and turns. 

We get lost in roles, forgetting other core characteristics of self. Perhaps, we need to create a new self that integrates the roles rather than identifies the self by the roles.

A Few Final Remarks

Roles, expectations, conflict are a staple of human interaction. Society creates predictable roles that we can use to achieve individual goals. However, roles we despise suck us in. Sometimes, we are born into roles that are unfair.

We can’t expect to disregard roles altogether and survive. In conclusion, role theory research is enlightening as we struggle to understand ourselves in society, and in the wide range of relationships we find ourselves in from birth until the final curtain is drawn.

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Anglin, A., Kincaid, P., Short, J., & Allen, D. (2022). Role Theory Perspectives: Past, Present, and Future Applications of Role Theories in Management Research. Journal of Management: Official Journal of the Southern Management Association, 48(6), 1469-1502.

Biddle, B. (1986). Recent Developments in Role Theory. Annual Review of Sociology, 12(1), 67-92.

Freud, Sigmund (2018). Civilization and Its Discontents. GENERAL PRESS; 1st edition.

Ivey, A., & Robin, S. (1966). Role theory, role conflict, and counseling: A conceptual framework. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 13(1), 29-37.

Jung, Carl G. (2011). Memories, Dreams, Reflections.  ‎ Vintage; Reissue edition.

Kaplan, C., & Weiglus, K. (1979). Benaeth role theory: reformulating a theory with neitsche’s philosophy. Philosophy & Social Criticism: An International, Interdisciplinary Journal, 6(3), 290-305.

LaRocco, S. (1978). An Introduction to Role Theory for Nurses. Nursing Management, 9(12).

Linton, Ralph (1936). The Study of Man. D. Appleton and Co; First Edition.

Mead, Robert, Herbert (1934). Mind, Self, and Society. University of Chicago Press; Enlarged edition.

Nietzsche, Friedrich (2019). The Use and Abuse of History. Dover Publications.

Parsons, Talcott (1951) The Social System. Quid Pro, LLC.

Raffel, S. (1999). Revisiting Role Theory: Roles and the Problem of the Self. Sociological Research Online, 4(2), 113-124.

Rheiner, N. (1982). Role Theory Framework for Change. Nursing Management, 13(3), 20-20.

Turner, Ralph H. (1976). The Real Self: From Institution to Impulse. American Journal of Sociology, 81(5), 989–1016.

Trahair, R. (2016). Dynamics of a Role Theory for the Worker’s Judgement. Human Relations, 22(2), 99-119.

White, Robert, Winthrop. (1972). The Enterprise of Living: Growth and Organization. Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

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