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Role Theory

Roles As Interaction

The interactionist perspective focuses on how individuals adopt and act out roles during interaction. Individuals perform their roles to others in a social context (role-performing), analogous to actors on a stage (Goffman 1959). Individuals also take on the role of others in order to anticipate their actions and perspectives (role-taking) and continually produce and reproduce roles (role-making) (Turner 1956). As an outcome of these interactions, individuals identify themselves and are identified by others as holding particular social statuses or positions (Stryker 1968). For example, the action of caring for a child confirms a woman's identity as a mother.

Research has uncovered the complex relationship between roles in interaction and the construction of identity. In a study of women hospital workers, Anita Garey (1999) found that women use the night shift as a way to publicly perform the dual, otherwise mutually exclusive roles of stay-at-home mom and full-time worker. This performance is done at a great cost to the women, most of whom get only a few hours of sleep each day. In another study, Cameron Macdonald (1998) showed how employed mothers and paid caregivers both acted in a way to ensure that the biological mother remains the "mother," although the two share the responsibilities and duties associated with the role.

Individuals do not equally embrace all identities associated with roles. Individuals vary in the extent to which they are committed to or identify with their different roles. Sheldon Stryker (1968) spoke of a salience hierarchy, or the probability of role expectations associated with an identity being displayed in a role performance. Ralph Turner (1978) wrote of the role-person merger, the process through which the person becomes what his or her role is, rather than merely performing a particular role in a given situation. Incongruity between a person's identity and roles results in person-role conflict. Erving Goffman (1961) spoke of role distance, or the way in which individuals separated themselves from particular roles that conflict with their identities.

Additional topics

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