Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science

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Social Roles

  • Janine BosakEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-16999-6_2469-1



A socially defined pattern of behavior that is expected of a person who occupies a certain social position or belongs to a particular social category.


Social roles are a socially defined pattern of behavior that is expected of persons who occupy a certain social position or belong to a particular social category. The construct of social roles is central to the social sciences, and it came into general use during the 1920s and 1930s by analogy to the theatre. Social life occurs as performances by social actors, who are constrained by the scripts of their roles; the same actor can perform very different roles in different plays, and different actors can perform the same role quite similarly (Biddle 1986).

Types of Roles and Role Theory

At an individual level, roles function as schemas, that is, mental concepts that inform a person about how to behave in a particular role or situation. In addition, these role schemas are important structures at societal level as they tend to be consensual, (i.e., shared by members of society), and all persons in a society can be expected to support these shared behavioral expectations. Roles are therefore aspects of social structure that can be regarded as “persisting and bounded patterns of behavior and interaction among people or positions” (House 1995, p. 390). Different types of roles can be distinguished from each other (see Turner 2001). Basic roles, which are based on membership in general social categories (e.g., gender, age, ethnicity), have great generality because they affect all portions of an individual’s daily life. In contrast, position or status roles, which are based on, for example, occupations (e.g., firefighter, nurse) and family relationships (e.g., father, daughter), are primarily important for one’s behavior in particular settings (e.g., organizational work-context) or in a particular group. Functional group roles, like “mediator,” “counselor,” and “devil’s advocate,” develop informally as individuals adopt situational identities during social interaction in a group setting. Finally, value roles, such as “saint,” “hero,” and “villain,” emerge in the context of very positively or negatively valued behavior. It is also important to note that social roles can be either ascribed (e.g., gender, age) or achieved (e.g., parent, doctor).

Role theory is concerned “with the organization of social behavior at both the individual and collective levels” (Turner 2002, p. 233). Individual behavior in social contexts, tasks, and responsibilities in work groups and organizations, as well as participation in society are organized into social roles. The role construct implies that individuals, who occupy the same social position within a social structure (e.g., organization, family), or who belong to the same general societal category (e.g., as men, as African Americans), are subject to the same situational constraints that help maintain their characteristic patterns of behavior. These constraints stem from the mental schemas for roles, for example, schemas for the daughter role, the doctor role, or the hero role, which people in their society share. As these schemas entail shared norms for appropriate conduct in these roles, “all persons in the system can be counted on to support those norms with sanctions” (Biddle 1986, p. 76). Role theory thus contributes to our understanding of the relationships among the micro-, meso-, and macrolevels of society.

Approaches to role theory can be broadly categorized via their most important distinguishing characteristic; they are either structural or interactional. Structural theories, building on Linton (1936), focus on the collective level and view roles as a set of expected behaviors, which are linked to positions in organizations and statuses in society. Individuals play their assigned parts in scripts written by culture with minimal improvisation. However, a somewhat more dynamic approach to structural theory put forward by R. Merton (1957) grants role incumbents (e.g., nurses) the option to act out different roles in response to the varied expectations of different people of importance (e.g., doctors, patients, family members of patients, fellow nurses). These different roles which emerge from varied expectations toward the role occupant are labelled a role-set. In contrast, interactional theories, building on G. H. Mead, shift the focus on social stability to social change, social structures to social processes, and on conformity to role-making (Turner 1962). Scripts only broadly determine the behaviors of the actors; during performances, the role incumbent improvises and develops and changes the scripts in a way that combines elements of creativity with conformity. Human agency and creativity in shaping social structures are seen are critical to social life as are social constraint and conformity. While the classification into structural or interactional approaches is the most critical one, Biddle (1986) distinguishes three additional subsets of role theories including functional role theory, oriented to analyses of stability in social systems; organizational role theory, which focuses on role conflict in formal organizations; and cognitive role theory, which studies role expectation-behavior relations.

Multiple Roles and Psychological Adjustment

Basic roles, like those attached to gender and age identities, coexist with specific roles, like family and occupational roles, and are relevant to a wide variety of situations, including social interactions that are also structured by these specific roles. In the workplace, for example, a nurse or firefighter holds a particular role defined by occupation but is, at the same time, a man or woman and, therefore, also acts in accordance with his or her gender role, i.e., shared expectations that apply to individuals based on their socially identified sex. Social role theory (Eagly et al. 2000) posits that in the presence of typically very constraining role information, gender roles become less influential determinants of a person’s behavior. More generally, research suggests that people combine or average the expectations linked to specific roles and more basic roles, like gender roles. Experimental evidence has further shown that men’s and women’s occupancy of the same role reduced or even eliminated gender-stereotypical trait judgments (Bosak et al. 2008, 2012). Eagly et al. (2000) conclude that specific social roles (e.g., occupational roles) mainly influence how the tasks required by the role are accomplished by individuals, regardless of their basic roles. In contrast, basic roles (e.g., one’s gender or sexual orientation) might “spill over” to impact the discretionary behaviors that are not required by the more specific social roles.

The coexistence of multiple social roles is also critical to the psychology of adjustment. A key concept is role conflict, which can be defined as “the concurrent appearance of two or more incompatible expectations for the behavior of a person” (Biddle 1986, p. 82). With intrarole conflict, the role incumbent must reconcile incompatible expectations and demands associated with the role. For example, an employee might experience intrarole conflict when being asked to complete a task for each of his or her supervisors at the same time. With interrole conflict, the role incumbent must manage contradictory expectations associated with different roles. For example, the interface between work and family demands can be a significant cause of interrole conflict. Because of role conflict, role strain, i.e., the felt difficulty in fulfilling role obligations (Goode 1960), may emerge. In addition to role conflict, other structural conditions that might cause problems in social systems include, for example, role ambiguity, i.e., a condition in which the role lacks specificity or complete information to guide behavior, and role overload, i.e., a condition in which a person faces too many expectations. In general, research suggests that, in work settings, these demands are associated with stress, burnout, and higher intention to quit. For example, a recent study conducted in a Canadian hospital found that job demands, (i.e., role conflict, role overload), were positively associated with burnout among hospital staff, (i.e., emotional exhaustion and depersonalization), and that staff perceptions of human resources practices (including empowerment, information-sharing, training, and nonmonetary recognition practices) reduced the perceived demands and, in return, burnout (Kilroy et al. 2016).

The conflict perspective was challenged by Sieber (1974) who advanced the idea of role accumulation according to which the advantages of pursuing multiple roles might accumulate more substantially than the disadvantages, to the incumbent’s benefit. According to the role enhancement perspective, a larger number of roles will increase an individual’s resources, social connections, power, prestige, and emotional gratification (Marks 1977; Sieber 1974; Thoits 1983). This shift in focus from investigating the negative consequences of combining multiple roles (e.g., being both a parent and an employee) to its positive consequences has been particularly prominent in research on the work/nonwork interface – as evidenced by Greenhaus and Powell (2006)’s model of work-family enrichment. These scholars defined work-family enrichment as “the extent to which experiences in one role improve the quality of life in the other role” (p. 73) and propose that enrichment is bidirectional.


Social roles can be understood as a socially defined pattern of behavior enacted by a person in a particular social position or belonging to a particular social category. Different roles (e.g., basic roles, position roles) can be distinguished from each other and they combine, in the form of multiple roles, to influence people’s behavior. The coexistence of multiple social roles has important implications for individual’s psychological adjustment and well-being, although the two competing perspectives – i.e., role strain perspective versus role enhancement perspective – differ in their propositions of and explanations for the effects of multiple roles on well-being.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Dublin City UniversityDublinIreland

Section editors and affiliations

  • Carey Fitzgerald
    • 1
  1. 1.University of South Carolina – BeaufortBlufftonUSA