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This lesson focuses on the roles that society socially constructs. We define social roles and identify examples.

We also examine types of social roles and what can happen with them, including role conflict, role strain, and role exit.

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Social Roles

There are a number of ways in which we socially construct the world around us. In other words, we use our social interactions with others to make sense of and give purpose to our lives. One way in which we do this is to create social structures that give us cues for how to behave.

Statuses and roles are two of these structures. We previously discussed statuses in depth, so now we turn to social roles.A social role defines a set of behaviors that are expected of someone who holds a particular status. It’s easy to confuse a status and a role, but the basic difference between them is that we occupy a status and play a role. Every status has an expected set of behaviors – a role. A woman becomes a mother when she has a child and so occupies the status of mother. She is expected to also play the role of mother by caring for and loving her children (among other things).

Interestingly, role expectations can change over time and also differ between cultures. Not that long ago, it was a role expectation for mothers to stay at home with their children and ‘keep house’ while the fathers played breadwinner. Today in our culture, this still occurs but is no longer a strict expectation of the mother’s role – just an acceptable option. In other cultures, however, a mother working outside the home is still considered to be strange or even unacceptable.All of us typically occupy many statuses and play the roles attached to each one. Sometimes, a status has more than one role associated with it.

This is known as a role set. For example, a teacher plays one role in relation to his students, another role in relation to his fellow teachers, another in relation to the school board and so on.

Role Conflict vs. Role Strain

It can be stressful to play so many roles at once. Have you ever been stressed because of overlapping work, school and social commitments? Did you feel as if there wasn’t enough time in the day to make everyone happy? If so, you were probably experiencing role conflict, which is what happens when role demands from different statuses conflict with each other and cause stress.The more statuses we have and the more roles we play, the more likely we are to experience role conflict. If our fictional mother worked as an office manager, volunteered for a philanthropic organization, participated in church activities and provided care for her own aging mother, she would likely experience role conflict, because the responsibilities would sometimes overlap and clash.

Though meeting the role demands of different statuses can be overwhelming, it can also be difficult to meet all of the role obligations of a single status. Role strain is when the role demands from a single status cause conflict or become stressful. For example, a teacher might feel overwhelmed by the demands of his role set. The demands of the school board, principal and students aren’t always complementary. He would probably feel stressed or even burdened by the different aspects of his job.

Role Exit

Though some roles stay with us for our entire lives, others don’t last. And sometimes, role conflict and/or role strain can become too much to handle. Role exit occurs when an individual leaves an important social status and stops playing its attached role. By ‘important,’ we are talking about a status that was central to one’s identity, such as a master status.By exiting the status and attached role (either voluntarily or involuntarily), the person typically has to redefine relationships with others and reestablish a new identity. For example, when our teacher retires, he will experience a role exit.

He will no longer have to play the role of teacher, which was an integral part of his identity for so many years. He will have to establish a new one as a retiree who has no students, fellow faculty, teaching responsibilities, etc.

Lesson Summary

In summary, a social role defines a set of behaviors that are expected of someone who holds a particular status. All of us typically occupy many statuses and play the roles attached to each one.

Sometimes, a status has more than one role associated with it. This is known as a role set.It can be stressful to play so many roles at once. Role conflict occurs when role demands from different statuses conflict with each other and cause stress. The more statuses we have and the more roles we play, the more likely we are to experience role conflict. Though meeting the role demands of different statuses can be overwhelming, it can also be difficult to meet all of the role obligations of a single status. Role strain is when the role demands from a single status cause conflict or become stressful.

Sometimes, role conflict and/or role strain can become too much to handle. This may result in role exit, which occurs when an individual leaves an important social status and stops playing its attached role.

Learning Outcomes

After studying the information in this lesson, you’ll be able to:

  • Define social role and role set
  • Explain what causes role conflict and role strain to occur
  • Describe the process of role exit

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