Role Theory: What’s Our Role in Society?

October 7, 2018

We can define social roles as the roles we play in society. Social roles detail and represent what activities or behaviors people expect from us in a given social environment. Who are the people that define what actions we should do? Has someone already assigned us that role, or do we create it ourselves? We’ll answer these questions in this article.

We play a role within any and all groups. We can easily see it within a team. For example, the defender or forward, the captain or the point guard. There are roles within families, such as mother, father, or brother. They also exist at work: director, secretary, colleague, or assistant. One person, depending on the context, can play several roles. They can be a work colleague, a son in a family, or the joker within a group of friends.

We can build our own roles or we can adapt to preexisting ones. Other group members may initially define the type of behavior they expect from you. These expectations are generalized and each person will have to eventually accept your personal characteristics.

A few chess pieces.

Stress factors associated with roles

Problems that stem from our roles can come from different sources: 

  • Ambiguity. In this case, someone is expecting us to adapt to a role we don’t really understand. It isn’t clear and we don’t know what others want from us or how they want us to contribute to the group.
  • Conflicting roles. In this section, we talk about two ideas. The first is conflict within the same role. This occurs when the role doesn’t fit the person. For whatever reason, we’re not able to adapt to what people are asking from us because their requests exceed our abilities. Their requests may also contradict our values, meaning we don’t feel comfortable acting on their wishes. The other type of problem is when two different roles conflict with one another. For example, I can have two different roles within one group such as being a scholar and continuing my studies or being a parent with a job. This situation would bring stress because it would be very difficult to meet the expectations that both roles require.
  • Roles awarded. These are problems that arise from having to adapt to a role that people have already defined for us. In these situations, there’s little room to build and expand on the role to make it unique to us. A good example of this type of stress could be gender roles. If you’re a girl, you may feel as if you have to act a certain way just because you’re female, even if those actions aren’t true to who you are.
  • Role overload. When people expect too much from us, we can become overwhelmed. The role may be taking too much energy and this makes us exceed our ability to adapt. This, in turn, generates stress.
  • Poor roles. This problem is the opposite of role overload. Unlike role overload, a poor role is when we feel like we’re not being used to our maximum potential. We feel like we can give more of ourselves but that role isn’t allowing that to happen.
A group of social people.

Building a role

Our roles in society or in a group are dynamic and constantly evolving. In many cases, during this transformation, we have the greatest responsibility for the way it changes. In this sense, problems usually arise when we’re lost and unsure of ourselves. This happens when we try to adopt a role that goes beyond our limits or when we introduce ourselves to too much change too quickly. Our bodies and minds have a difficult time responding to radical changes.

At the end of the day, our roles should be unique and non-transferable. There may be things we need to adapt to when we enter a new group. These roles probably come with a set of general guidelines and actions, but they should accommodate us and not the other way around.

Building your role requires time and intelligence. After all, your role is an opportunity to show the world what you’re capable of.