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A role (also rôle or social role) is a set of connected behaviors, rights, obligations, beliefs, and norms as conceptualized by people in a social situation. It is an expected or free or continuously changing behaviour and may have a given individual social status or social position. It is vital to both functionalist and interactionist understandings of society. Social role posits the following about social behaviour:

  1. The division of labour in society takes the form of the interaction among heterogeneous specialised positions, we call roles.
  2. Social roles included appropriate and permitted forms of behaviour, guided by social norms, which are commonly known and hence determine the expectations for appropriate behaviour in these roles.
  3. Roles are occupied by individuals, who are called actors.
  4. When individuals approve of a social role (i.e., they consider the role legitimate and constructive), they will incur costs to conform to role norms, and will also incur costs to punish those who violate role norms.
  5. Changed conditions can render a social role outdated or illegitimate, in which case social pressures are likely to lead to role change.
  6. The anticipation of rewards and punishments, as well as the satisfaction of behaving prosocially, account for why agents conform to role requirements.

The notion of the role is examined in the social sciences, more specifically economics, sociology and organisation theory.


  • The roles that we construct are constructed because we feel that they will help us to survive and also, of course, because they fulfill something in our personalities; and one does not, therefore, cease playing a role simply because one has begun to understand it. All roles are dangerous. The world tends to trap you in the role you play and it is always extremely hard to maintain a watchful, mocking distance between oneself as one appears to be and oneself as one actually is.
    • James Baldwin "The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy" in Esquire (May 1961)
  • Associated with each office is a set of activities, which are defined as potential behaviors. These activities constitute the role to be performed, at least approximately, by any person who occupies that office.
    • Robert L. Kahn, Organizational stress: Studies in role conflict and ambiguity (1964), p. 13: Definition of the term role.
  • The prescriptions and proscriptions held by members of a role set are designated as role expectations. ... The role expectations held for a certain person by some member of his or her role set will reflect that member's conception of the person's office and his or her abilities. The content of these expectations may include preferences with respect to specific acts and personal characteristics or styles; they may deal with what the person should do, what kind of person he should be, what he should think, or believe, and how he should relate to others.
    • Robert L. Kahn, Organizational stress: Studies in role conflict and ambiguity (1964), p. 14
  • Each sent pressure can be regarded as arousing in the focal person a psychological force of some magnitude and direction. Such forces will be called role forces. This is not to say that these motivational role forces are identical in magnitude and direction with the role pressures which evoked them. Especially when role pressures are seen as illegitimate or coercive, they may arouse strong resistance forces which lead to outcomes different from or even opposite to the expected behavior. Pressures to increase production rates sometimes result in slowdowns. Moreover, every person is subject to a variety of psychological forces in addition to those stimulated by pressures from his role set in the work situation. Role pressures are thus only a partial determinant of behavior on the job. In addition, to the motivational forces aroused by role pressures, there are important internal sources of motivation for role performance. One of these stems from the intrinsic satisfaction derived from the content of the role.
    • Robert L. Kahn, Organizational stress: Studies in role conflict and ambiguity (1964), p. 16-17
  • Innovative roles represent patterned organizational deviance.
    • Robert L. Kahn, Organizational stress: Studies in role conflict and ambiguity (1964), p. 388, as cited in: Eugene E. Szymaszek (1996). Changing Role of Leadership for Vocational Education in... p. 41
  • Prices play a crucial role in determining how much of each resource gets used where and how the resulting products get transferred to millions of people. Yet this role is seldom understood by the public and it is often disregarded entirely by politicians.

See also

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