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What is Role Theory?

By Tara Barnett
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Role theory is a way of thinking about the world that focuses on the roles people play in society. In the language of this perspective, a role roughly relates to a job or a social category, such as mother, boss, or teacher. In a more nuanced understanding of this theory, the use of the term role is actually much broader and may include roles that exist only between two people in relation to one another or roles that are adopted only temporarily. The primary goal of role theory is looking at how the roles people play affect their interactions, which can help elucidate why people act the way they do.

One of the most important concepts in role theory is that people act out certain roles in ways that can be relatively well predicted. Each role has certain obligations to act in a specific way, and a person will typically fulfill these obligations subconsciously. A role is not something that is natural to a person, but is rather a group of behaviors that the person somehow comes to fulfill.

Roles, in role theory, are not like roles in a play, but are rather like states of being. A person might act as a teacher in one instance, for example, and as a wife in another. Both roles belong to the person in question, but the relevant role has more influence over the situation than irrelevant roles. When a person chooses the wrong role for a situation, such as acting as a teacher to a spouse, disastrous consequences may occur.

According to role theory, roles are not necessarily chosen by the people who fill them. For example, a person may wish to be a superior, but may be put in a subordinate role because all the people around the person believe that to be the person's appropriate role. It is also possible for conflict to arise when a person disagrees with the constraints of a role to which he or she has been consigned. People are constantly redefining what behaviors belong to which roles, although changes are not always obvious except on the historical scale.

In someone's personal life, awareness of the different roles a person plays can be helpful when determining why someone is dissatisfied. If a person disagrees with a certain role but feels pressured by society to continue fulfilling that role, extreme dissatisfaction may result. Also, looking at how different roles interact in a person's own life can help illuminate why certain relationships fail to function. Overall, a basic knowledge of role theory can help an individual puzzle through many difficulties in his or her life.

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Discussion Comments
By Melonlity — On Mar 18, 2014

This article sheds a lot of light on the origins of a saying that most of us have heard "know your place." Society really does assign roles to us and we are expected to learn them and stick with them. Most resist such sociological typecasting in their youth, but most eventually find their roles and learn to function within them. That's not an altogether bad thing.

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