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Role Theory

Accumulating And Changing Roles

Individuals accumulate different roles at any given stage within the life course. Throughout life, individuals transfer into and out of different roles, keeping some, leaving others behind, and beginning new roles (Burr 1972). These role transitions accompany transitions through life stages and can be easy or difficult, depending on the timing and social context (Rodgers and White 1993). In addition, the transition into one role can affect the transition into another. For instance, women in Germany and other European countries are delaying their transition to the roles of wife and mother as they extend their time in the role of student. It is concluded that remaining a student delays the transition to adulthood and likewise to normatively associated adult roles (Blossfeld and Huinink 1991).

Within each life stage, individuals also simultaneously hold many different roles. One reason for this is that individuals hold multiple social positions at one time. When a woman becomes a mother, she can also continue to have the roles of daughter, wife, and daughter-in-law. In addition, each position is associated with a role set, an individual's range of role relationships that accompany any social status (Merton 1957). As a mother, a woman manages unique expectations from her child, her parents and in-laws who have become grandparents, the father, and her child's teachers and doctors. A role cluster refers to the interconnection between roles that occur within the same social institution (Lopata 1991). A woman's roles within the family are related and often different in important ways from her roles in the workplace, such as business owner, manager, and colleague.

Research finds multiple roles to be associated with both positive and negative consequences. Much attention had been given to the problems associated with multiple roles. Role overload and role conflict are two of the most well-known role theory concepts. Role overload refers to the experience of lacking the resources, including time and energy, needed to meet the demands of all roles. Role conflict describes an incongruity between the expectations of one role and those of another. Role overload and conflict often lead to difficulties with meeting role expectations, known as role strain (Goode 1960). Various negative psychological and physical problems can follow from role strain. In many cultures, including Japan, Singapore, and China, women experience stress, distress, and burnout as a result of combining work and family roles (Aryee 1993; Lai 1995; Matusi, Oshsawa, and Onglatco 1995). Levels of conflict, however, vary across cultures as a result of perceptions of gender roles and the subsequent amount of time given to work and domestic roles (Moore 1995).

At the same time, some evidence suggests that multiple roles provide opportunities and advantages. In their theory of role balance, Stephen Marks and Shelley MacDermid (1996) found that people who are able to fully participate in and perform a number of different roles experience not only less role strain but also lower rates of depression and higher self-esteem and innovation. Rose Laub Coser (1975) argues that it is among multiple roles that individuals are able to express individuality and act autonomously in accordance with or in opposition to normative expectations. Thus, multiple roles are important for the development of personality and intellect. Lois Verbrugge (1983) found that women who hold the multiple roles of mother, wife, and paid worker have better health than women holding none or only some of these roles.

Phyllis Moen (1992) has examined the potential positive and negative consequences for women of combining paid work and family roles. She concludes that whether multiple roles are positive or negative for women depends on many factors in women's lives, such as conditions of the work, conditions of their family roles, including the number and age of children, and extent to which women view themselves as captives or committed to their work and family roles.

Role sharing is likely a means through which the positive aspects of multiple roles can outweigh potential negative consequences. Individuals with different social statuses and social positions, or even across social institutions, can share the same role. For example, the care of children is often considered to be the role of mothers. However, fathers, employers, and government can all adopt the caregiving role (Drew, Emerek, and Mahon 1998). When they do, women are better able to competently fill and benefit from roles as both workers and mothers and experience less role strain, overload, and conflict. In China, while the father role is still viewed as primarily teacher and disciplinarian and mothers are viewed as the physical caregivers, fathers are increasingly participating in the caregiver role. This change is attributed to government-sponsored parental education and contact with Western culture (Abbott, Ming, and Meredith 1992). The International Labour Organization calls for employers to take on the responsibility of helping employees combine work and family (Derungs 2001). As they learn the benefits of fulfilling this role, employers are committing to this role. Governments, on the other hand, seem to be moving in an opposite direction. European welfare states previously embraced the role of contributing to the care of children by providing policies that aided women and later men in combining work and family. However, recent years have seen a change in the role of the state, with less emphasis on ensuring public childcare for all citizens (Jenson and Sineau 2001).


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Additional topics

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