Role Conflict & Role Strain Research Paper Starter

Role Conflict & Role Strain

In the middle of the twentieth century role theory was an especially prominent framework in sociology for understanding social behavior. Role theory was developed by American sociologist Talcott Parsons and his work on social systems, by German sociologist Ralf Dahrendorf, and by Erving Goffman's work on social life as theater and performance. One the one hand, the concept of social roles refers to expected behavioral patterns, obligations, and privileges attached to a particular status in a social structure or social system. On the other, in microsocial analysis, social role typically invokes the dramaturgical sense (theatrical) of the part a person plays in social life (Straus, 2002, p. 380). In both structural and interactionist accounts of social roles, socialization is a key process through which individuals learn a range of obligations and norms associated with the roles they come to occupy. Roles are associated with a given social status and an individual may occupy several roles as part of a role-set. As a consequence, they may experience both role conflict and role strain. Role conflict occurs when individuals experience contradictory demands from the different roles they perform. Role strain occurs when individuals experience contradictory demands from the same role. Although role theory (also developed within social psychology) is not as prominent in contemporary sociology, the concept of role is an important tool and is most often deployed to understand the everyday dynamics and complexity of people's lives in the contest of home-work conflict and care of dependents.

Keywords Dramaturgical Perspective; Role Conflict; Role-Set; Role Strain; Socialization; Social Role; Social Status; Social System

Overview

In the middle of the twentieth century role theory was an especially prominent framework in sociology for understanding social behavior. Role theory was developed by American sociologist Talcott Parsons and his work on social systems, by German sociologist Ralf Dahrendorf, and by Erving Goffman's work on social life as theater and performance. One the one hand, the concept of social roles refers to expected behavioral patterns, obligations, and privileges attached to a particular status in a social structure or social system. On the other, in microsocial analysis, social role typically invokes the dramaturgical sense (theatrical) of the part a person plays in social life (Straus, 2002, p. 380). In both structural and interactionist accounts of social roles, socialization is a key process through which individuals learn a range of obligations and norms associated with the roles they come to occupy. Roles are associated with a given social status and an individual may occupy several roles as part of a role-set. As a consequence, they may experience both role conflict and role strain. Role conflict occurs when individuals experience contradictory demands from the different roles they perform. Role strain occurs when individuals experience contradictory demands from the same role. Although role theory (also developed within social psychology) is not as prominent in contemporary sociology, the concept of role is an important tool and is most often deployed to understand the everyday dynamics and complexity of people's lives in the contest of home-work conflict and care of dependents.

Social Systems Theory

Society can be viewed as a social system in which there are many elements working together and many relationships connecting these elements. A social system is typically understood as having emergent properties of its own that are distinct from the properties of its elements, and, like the human body that provides the underlying metaphor for society as a social system, is generally seen as having an inherent tendency toward equilibrium, achieving internal balance and external harmony in relation to other social systems (Marshall, 1994).

In social systems theory, individuals are linked to each other through relationships and exchanges of information that contribute to an interdependent whole. Each participant in the system plays an identifiable part, or role. Analysis of social systems focuses on how the elements of a system are tied together and how the system works internally (for instance, the family might be one system) and in relation to other systems (for instance, how families together make up and relate to a community). Within structural-functionalism, systems are underpinned by patterns of social life that are determined by functional necessity. While contemporary versions of systems theory have moved away from emphasizing functional necessity, they nevertheless continue to view roles as the organizing basis of systems (Straus, 2002).

Social Groups

Any given social system is comprised of social groups, which are characterized by repeated and relatively stable patterns of interaction among individual members, who are structurally tied to each other (e.g. through kinship relations); share a set of goals, values, beliefs, and norms; and identify themselves with the group (Giddens, 1997).

Individuals are socialized through primary groups and through these primary groups acquire their awareness of and attachment to social norms and values, as well as their emergent sense of self. Primary groups, such as the family or close friends, have the most influence on people, while secondary groups, such as workmates, have somewhat lesser though nonetheless distinct influence.

While primary socialization occurs early in life and is typically associated with childhood, sociologists generally agree that socialization occurs across the life course and that people can redefine and change the roles into which they have been socialized. Moreover, as people move through the life course, they are often expected to leave one role behind and take on the obligations of another. Or, as they move from membership of one social group into another they are expected to take on the obligations associated with the new group. The norms and values associated with and performed through social roles express the social status of individuals within a given social group.

Social Status

Social status refers to the position that an individual holds within a particular group (such as the father within a family) or in the social structure in general (such as teacher within a particular community) and the prestige or authority associated with that position. An individual's master status (Hughes, 1945) is his or her primary identifying characteristic. Status in a social hierarchy can be ascribed or achieved, and status is typically accompanied by various symbols and may also be accompanied by inconsistencies within a particular status. Ascribed status cannot be transformed or changed by people themselves and is typically associated with being born into a particular family or being born male or female. In contrast, achieved status is associated with voluntary action and with doing something that earns a position in the social pecking order that is either positive (e.g. heroic action) or negative (e.g. criminal action).

Status is occupied while social roles, that is, the behaviors, obligations, and privileges attached to a particular status, are performed. Individuals are members of many different groups (e.g. the family of origin, friendship groups, professional groups); occupy different statuses within these groups; and as such, perform a range of roles at any given time. In order to perform these roles, people need to be aware of the roles of others and know how their roles relate to the roles of others in their particular group. This constellation of roles constitutes a role-set and can be illustrated by examining the roles associated with being sick.

The Sick Role

Talcott Parsons' description of the sick role (1951) is an example of how people anticipate and take on a new role in a particular social system: the medical system. Parsons “was concerned with understanding how the sick person related to the whole social system, and what the person's function is in that system” (McQueen, 2002). In this example, people are able to take on the sick role not only because they know what others expect of them but they are also aware of the role-set associated with the status of being sick. When people become sick this can make an impact on their ability to fulfill social obligations (such as work or parenting). This impact is not simply a consequence of how disease affects the human body but of the extent to which the experience of disease is socially sanctioned.

Parsons (1951) argued that what constitutes illness in a given culture will be related to the norms and values that prevail. In The Encyclopedia of Public Health, David McQueen (2002) notes that ultimately, the sick role allows individuals to be integrated into the medical care system and to take on behaviors compliant with the expectations of the medical system. The sick role has four chief characteristics:

• First, the sick person (that is, the person who feels unwell and who is medically sanctioned as sick) is freed from carrying out normal social roles. For example, a minor chest cold “allows” one to be excused from small obligations such as attending a social gathering. By contrast, a major heart attack allows considerable time away from work and social obligations.

• Second, people in the sick role are not directly responsible for their plight.

• Third, the sick person needs to try to get well.

• Finally, in the sick role, the sick person must seek competent help and cooperate with medical care to get well.

This “conceptual schema implies many reciprocal relations between the sick person (the patient) and the healer (the physician). Thus the function of the physician is one of social control” (McQueen, 2002).

Social Role Theory

According to social role theory, behavioral sex differences arise from the differentiated social roles inhabited by women and men, especially those concerning the division of labor. Parsons and his colleague Robert F. Bales (1955) examined how role differentiation within families occurred in order to functionally support society as a social...

(The entire section is 4505 words.)