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The term role derives from the French role, which refers to the part that an actor must learn for a theatrical performance. In an analogous way, in the field of sociology, this concept relates to the social role that an individual plays within a given society. Role, therefore, can be viewed as a model of behavior which arises concerning a certain social function and which refers to the set of expectations that the society has on the behavior of an individual occupying a particular social position.
The concept of role is narrowly linked to the concept of status. But whereas status is generally seen as a more static concept, since it indicates the social positioning of an individual in a certain moment, the concept of role is more dynamic referring to the different behaviors that an individual must carry out when he/she is occupying a particular social position.
In every culture there exists a set of well-defined roles, having a generalized agreement on the behavior expected from the individuals who exercise these roles (i.e. the role of a mother). Through the process of socialization, an individual learns and internalizes the norms of behavior associated with given social positions. However, the social assumption of every role is not absolutely determined, so that the behaviors prescribed for every social position are wide enough that each individual has a margin of freedom to adapt his/her behavior to his/her own personality.
All individuals play diverse roles, so many as groups to which he/she belongs. The sum of all the roles that the individual plays constitutes his/ her social personality. Every person can accede to a role by means of the assignment, the role is given to him/her from outside (son’s role), or by means of achievement, when it is applied by means of a personal decision (the role of a sociology student). The play of different social roles can derive in a conflict of incompatibility when the fulfillment of the expectations of one role prevents an individual from fulfilling the expectations of another. For example, playing the role of a professional can often interfere with playing the role of a family member.
The concept of social role has been studied from different theoretical approaches within sociology. The structural-functionalist approach, exemplified by Talcott Parsons and Robert Merton, considers roles as a standardized, stable and difficult to modify way of behavior that is associated with a particular social position. From this perspective, the individuals will have little freedom to modify their expected social behavior, provided that the role is firmly prescribed by the social norms. On the other hand, from the phenomenological perspective within sociology, exemplified by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, roles are seen as guides to what is expected from the social actors in a particular situation. Thus, they grant a certain amount of freedom to the individual to represent the social role in his/her own way. Similarly, the dramaturgical model, exemplified by Erving Goffman, focuses on the different roles that individuals play in varying social contexts to interact with other persons.
- Stryker, S. (1980) Symbolic Interaction: A Structural Version. University of California Press, Menlo Park, CA.
- Turner, R. (1962) Role-taking: process versus conformity. In: Rose, A. (ed.), Human Behavior and Social Processes. Houghton Mifflin, Boston, MA, pp. 20—40.