Role is a key concept in sociological theory. It highlights the social expectations attached to particular social positions and analyses the workings of such expectations. Role theory was particularly popular during the mid-20th century, but after sustained criticism came to be seen as flawed and became less widely used. However the concept of role, properly understood, remains a basic tool for sociological understanding.
There are two rather different approaches within role theory. One develops the social anthropology of Ralph Linton and gives a structural account of roles situated within the social system. Here, roles become institutionalized clusters of normative rights and obligations: Talcott Parsons's celebrated account of the sick role is a good example. An alternative approach is more social-psychological in tenor and focuses upon the active processes involved in making, taking, and playing at roles: it is part of the traditions of symbolic interactionism and dramaturgy, the latter of which analyses social life through the metaphor of drama and the theatre.
The structural account of roles locates a position in society, such as that of a teacher, and then tries to describe the standard bundle of rights and duties associated with an ideal type of this position. These expectations, which are socially based, constitute the role. Any given person will possess a number of statuses (for example mother, teacher, golf-captain), and these constitute a status set, with each status harbouring its own role. Every role brings a number of different partners, each with their own set of expectations, so that a teacher (for example) may have students, colleagues, heads, governors, and parents as role partners, each of whom makes somewhat different expectations upon his or her behaviour. The sum total of the expectations of these partners is the role-set. When these expectations are in disagreement, as is frequently the case, sociologists talk of role conflict and role strain. In the Parsonian system of social theory, these role patterns are defined through the so-called pattern variables, or choices between pairs of alternative norms. This theory is a useful heuristic device for mapping the organization of societies through normative patterns, but some uses of it have tended to oversimplify normative expectations by assuming too much consensus in society, and by reifying the social system. A sophisticated version that properly recognizes conflict is Ralf Dahrendorf 's Homo Sociologicus (1968), at one time controversial, now unwarrantably neglected.
The contrasting social psychological view is focused much more upon the dynamic aspects of working at roles: it examines the interactions in which people come to play their roles rather than describing the place of these roles in the social structure. Here, the emphasis is on the ways in which people come to take the role of the other (role-taking), construct their own roles (role-making), anticipate the responses of others to their roles (see altercasting), and finally play at their particular role (role-playing). In some versions of this theory (for example that propounded by Erving Goffman), attention is given to the ways in which roles are performed:sometimes people may embrace their parts fully (role embracement) and play out the details of their role in cherished detail. At other times they may perform their parts with tongue-in-cheek (role distance)—showing that they are much more than the simple role they play. Or they may play roles cynically in order to manage the outcomes of the situation (impression management). In all of these accounts the concern is with the dynamics of working at roles, where roles are not fixed expectations, but emergent outcomes. Perhaps the most useful accounts of this approach to role theory are to be found in Goffman 's The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) and Encounters (1961).