Role conflict refers to a condition in which competing and incompatible normative expectations associated with the enactment of social statuses are imposed on an individual. The most noted, though not the only, condition under which this circumstance might occur is when an individual is required to enact simultaneously at least two roles, each of which has competing expectations. The results of such a condition may be psychological stress, role abandonment, or social change.
Though experienced by individuals occupying certain roles, the causes of role conflict may exist at the individual or societal level. At an individual level, role conflict results from a particular set of circumstances associated with an individual situation. At a societal level, role conflict may be symptomatic of underlying social problems or arrangements or the result of social change; it is best alleviated when these structural conditions are addressed.
Generally, social life is arranged so that individuals are called upon to enact one role at a time. This is achieved by either compartmentalizing roles or scheduling the enactment of roles so as to keep them from conflicting. To the extent that this arrangement is maintained, role conflict is avoided; however, there are times when this is not possible. For a particular individual, a change in circumstance may lead to role conflict. For example, a promotion at work may place an individual in a circumstance requiring the supervision of friends. Role expectations of a workplace supervisor, such as hiring and firing others, may conflict with role expectations associated with friendship, such as loyalty.
While experienced by individuals occupying certain roles, causes of role conflict may exist at a societal level as a result of social conditions or arrangements. Role conflict is then experienced by a category of people occupying certain roles affected by certain social circumstances. For example, the roles of employee and parent often conflict. Those occupying these roles are often torn between parental obligations such as staying home with a sick child and going to work. Such role conflict may be experienced by many working parents and may be the result of social conditions such as economic need, the nature of family arrangements, changes in gender expectations, or the absence of viable alternative arrangements.
Resolutions to role conflict are varied. Resolutions are most effective when they are formulated at the level at which the conflict is created. At the individual level, one may abandon one role to meet the requirements of another or recompartmentalize or reprioritize roles to avoid undue conflict. At the societal level, organizational change, collective action, or changes in social policy may need to occur to eliminate role conflict effectively. Often individuals are required to resolve role conflict on their own even when the conflict is created at the societal level. While role conflict is problematic for individuals, it is often the impetus for social change that leads to an improved social condition.
- Blau, Judith R. and Norman Goodman, ed. 1995. Social Roles and Social Institutions: Essays in Honor of Rose Laub Coser. 2nd ed. Boulder, CO: Westview.
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