The script that an actor followed was once written on a roll of paper, and the part played became known as a “role.” As Shakespeare famously wrote, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” Sociologists define “role” as a combination of expected behaviors in a socially understood situation.
Closely related to social roles is the concept of status. Status refers to a social position, that is, the social niche people occupy in relation to others. A distinction is usually made between “ascribed” and “achieved” status. Ascribed status is assigned, often on the basis of birth, with age and sex being important markers and with some societies using perceived “race” and ethnicity to assign status. Achieved status is attained through the behavior of an individual, often in terms of occupation and skills. As Ralph Linton pointed out, one occupies a certain status while one plays a particular role.
For example, most people know me as an anthropologist at a university where I teach, read and write, attend meetings, and occasionally do fieldwork. I play the roles of instructor, researcher, colleague, and ethnographer, and my achieved status is fairly high. Within my kinship system where I have a mostly ascribed status, I am a son, brother, brother-in-law, nephew, uncle, husband, father, grandfather. In the schools, I play the role of secretary of the PTA and occasional speaker. Within one very small group, I am a less than mediocre archer, and there I have a low status.
People define roles for themselves and attempt to achieve a certain status through playing that role, but if their attempt is not socially accepted, they will not achieve that status. For example, a person may attempt the role of a prophet by preaching on street corners, but if others do not gather to listen, he will attain little or no status and presumably will eventually abandon that role.
Indeed, people form expectations about the roles that will be played both by themselves and others. The surrounding social world contains many clues, some subtle and some obvious, that encourage everyone to act within the expectations that others have for them. The status attached to these roles will come largely from their predetermined societal evaluation.
The term role confusion refers to a situation in which people have difficulty determining what role they should play and is usually divided into role strain and role conflict. Role strain occurs within the same role set; for example, in a large family gathering a person may feel conflicted among playing the roles of uncle, husband, or son-in-law. Role conflict occurs across different role sets; for example, if a person’s son is in one of her university classes, she may feel conflicted between the roles of mother and instructor.
The traditional concept of role is rather too rigid for use in contemporary social and behavior sciences and has been modified by the inclusion of the concept of self-identity, which allows actors to simultaneously express their selves and fulfill their roles.
- Bennett, M., & Sani, F. (Eds.). (2004). The development of the social self. New York: Psychology Press.
- Goldin, L., (Ed.). (2000). Identities on the move: Transnational processes in North America and the Caribbean Basin. Austin: University of Texas Press.