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Role Theory

Roles As Structure

From the structural perspective, roles are the culturally defined norms—rights, duties, expectations, and standards for behavior—associated with a given social position (Linton 1945). In other words, one's social position is seen as influencing one's behaviors. In addition, statuses such as gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and social class also shape roles (Lopata 1991).

For example, as a mother, a woman is expected to place the care of her child above all other concerns. Although this normative expectation varies across cultures, with some cultures expecting mothers to be paid workers as well, opinion surveys show that the majority of people in countries as diverse as Australia, Japan, and Poland believe that women with preschool-age children should not work outside of the home and that their children will suffer if they do.

The actual enactment of role behavior, however, may not correspond to the role expectations. Role competence, or success in carrying out a role, can vary depending on social contexts and resources. In countries with strong normative expectations for women to be full-time mothers, single mothers and low-income mothers often have to violate these role expectations and have been criticized as less competent mothers as a result.

Indeed, there is pressure to conform successfully to roles. Sanctions are used as tools of enforcement. Punishments for not following the role of mother can range from informal sanctions, such as rebukes from neighbors, to formal sanctions, such as the intervention of child welfare services. An example is found among women who choose not to take the role of mother and remain voluntarily childless. In a study of Swedish couples without children, researchers found that women, in particular, felt alienated from the majority of women in their community, friendship networks, and at work who were mothers (Wirtberg 1999).

The social pressure to confirm to roles can be negative for individuals. Role captivity refers to the unwanted participation in a particular role (Pearlin 1983). Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique (1963) is probably one of the most well-known and influential works on role captivity. She found that many women, prohibited by the threat of sanctions from taking a role other than mother and wife, felt trapped and experienced depression and frustration as a result.

Despite sanctions, roles do not remain static, but change and evolve over time (Turner 1990). Roles crystallize when they are widely recognized and deemed important by those who share a culture (Nye 1974). Yet not all roles are equally crystallized, and highly crystallized roles can decrystallize over time. Since Friedan's work in the early 1960s, it has not only become socially acceptable for women in the United States to have other roles beside those in the family, but being "only a housewife" has become stigmatized (Rothbell 1991). As roles change, there can be shifts in clarity, or the extent to which roles have clearly defined, unambiguous expectations (Cottrell 1942). The clarity of well-established roles is often high, while newer roles can be met with uncertainty and confusion.


Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaRelationshipsRole Theory - Roles As Structure, Roles As Interaction, Accumulating And Changing Roles