The term is used in two rather different but related senses. It is vital to both functionalist and interactionist[?] understandings of society, but is of only peripheral relevance to conflict theory[?].
Role confusion is a situation where an individual has trouble determining which role he/she should play. For example, you, a college student[?], go to attend an convention of fun club and find your teacher there. Should you behave as a student or as an enthusiast who shares the same interest?
Role strain characterises a situation where fulfilling a certain role has a conflict with fulfilling another role. For example, you found your teacher made a mistake and should you report that? If you did, you might disgrace him and if you didn't, you might not fulfil your role as student. While role conflict takes place across different role sets, role strain happens within the same role set[?].
The functionalist approach, which is largely borrowed from anthropology, sees a "role" as the set of expectations that society places on an individual. By unspoken consensus, certain behaviours are deemed "appropriate" and others "inappropriate". For example, it is appropriate for a doctor to dress fairly conservatively, ask a series of personal questions about one's health, touch one in ways that would normally be forbidden, write prescriptions, and show more concern for the personal wellbeing of his clients than is expected of, say, an electrician or a shopkeeper.
Notice that "role" is what the doctor does (or, at least, is expected to do), while status is what the doctor is. In other words, "status" is the position an actor occupies, while "role" is the expected behaviour attached to that position. Roles are not limited to occupational status, of course, nor does the fact that one is cast in the role of "doctor" during working hours prevent one from taking other on other roles at other times: husband, golf club president, father, and so on.
Roles can be semi-permanent ("doctor", "mother", "child"), or transitory. A well-known example is the sick role as formulated by Talcott Parsons in the late 1940s. A person who is judged to be "sick" is exempted from his usual roles; is not held personally responsible for his incapacity; can only take on the sick role on condition that he wants to eventually get well and return to a "normal" role; and he must co-operate with his officially designated helpers (doctors and others).
Role conflict takes place when one is forced to take on two different and incompatible roles at the same time. Consider the example of a doctor who is himself a patient, or who must decide whether he should be present for his daughter's birthday party (in his role as "father") or attend an ailing patient (as "doctor"). (Also compare the psychological concept of cognitive dissonance.)
In the functionalist conception, role is one of the important ways in which individual activity is socially regulated: roles create regular patterns of behaviour and thus a measure of predictability, which not only allows individuals to function effectively because they know what to expect of others, but also makes it possible for the sociologist to make generalisations about society. Collectively, a group of of interlocking roles creates a social institution[?]: the institution of law, for example, can be seen as the combination of many roles, including "police officer", "judge", "criminal", and "victim".
Roles, in this conception, are created by society as a whole, are relatively inflexible, are more-or-less universally agreed upon, and individuals simply take their designated roles on and attempt to fulfil them as best they can. Although it is recognised that different roles interact ("teacher" and "student"), and that roles are usually defined in relation to other roles ("doctor" and "patient", or "mother" and "child") , the functionalist approach has great difficulty in accounting for variability and flexibility of roles, and finds it difficult to account for the vast differences in the way that individuals conceive different roles. Taken to extremes, the functionalist approach results in "role" becoming a set of static, semi-global expectations laid down by a unified, amorphous society: as simply prescriptions for correct behaviour. The distinction between "role" and norm and culture thus becomes sterile.
Nevertheless, although the classic functionalist approach to "role" is no longer regarded as an especially useful tool in the modern sociologist's approach to understanding societies, it remains a fundamental concept which is still taught in most introductory courses and is still regarded as important, particularly so when considering relatively homogenous, united societies like the middle-class post-war USA that gave birth to it.
More broadly, "role" in this static, defined-by-the-whole-of-society sense, is a concept that has crossed over from academic discourse into popular use. It has become commonplace to speak of particular "roles" as if they were indeed fixed, agreed on by all, and uncontroversial: "the role of the teacher" or "a parent's role", for example. Notice that this everyday usage nearly always employs "role" in a normative way, to imply that "this is the proper behaviour" for a teacher or a parent, or even for an entire institution such as the government.
In interactionist[?] social theory, the concept of role is crucial. The interactionist definition of "role" pre-dates the functionalist one (which is a later borrowing from the same source), but is more fluid and subtle, and remains a more fruitful concept. Oddly enough for a concept which has been adopted by two of the three major branches of sociology and is central to a good deal of anthropology as well, the first systematic use of the term "role" was made by a philosopher, George Herbert Mead[?], in his seminal 1934 work, Mind, self and society.
A role, in this conception, is not fixed or prescribed but something that is constantly negotiated between individuals in a tentative, creative way. Mead's main interest was the way in which children learn how to become a part of society by imaginative role-taking. Children, wrote Mead, imitate the roles of the people around them and try them on to see how well they fit. This is always done in an interactive way: it's not meaningful to think of a role for one person alone, only for that person as an individual who is both co-operating and competing with others. Adults behave similarly: taking roles from those that they see around them, adapting them in creative ways, and (by the process of social interaction) testing them and either confirming them or modifying them. This can be most easily seen in encounters where there is considerable ambiguity, but is nevertheless something that is part of all social interactions: each individual actively tries to "define the situation"(understand her role within it); choose a role that is advantageous or appealing; play that role; and persuade others to support the role.
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