Social role

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The social role is a term from sociology and social psychology that was borrowed from the theater . According to the definition of the American anthropologist Ralph Linton (1936), the social role represents the totality of the “cultural models” assigned to a given status (e.g. mother, superior, priest etc.). This includes in particular expectations , values , and behavioral patterns and behaviors that depend on the social system . A social actor has to face these requirements according to his position . The social figure must be clearly distinguished from the social role .

The role theory describes and explains, on the one hand, the role expectations and definitions and, on the other hand, which freedom of play and action are open to the individual and social groups in a role. It deals with how socially given roles are learned, internalized, filled out and modified.

Regardless of the social role, the assigned operational role in professional life causes a distinction that determines the division of labor on the basis of qualifications .


Sociological definitions of different roles are:

Role / position: A role is expected of a person who is supposed to adapt to society at a certain point in time or to a certain situation. The role relates to the position, as an individual first has to find a position in order to then take on the role. From this one can see that the human being is a social being, since he adapts to the role expectations. You can find out on yourself by looking at the behavior of the same person e.g. B. observed on the sports field and at work or school, here you can mostly see differences.

Assigned position: We achieve an assigned position by not doing anything ourselves. That means so much that we do nothing for this position in order to take it. An assigned position is e.g. B. skin color, ethnic origin, age or gender.

Acquired position: We can only attain an acquired position through our own actions. This means that we have to make an effort to achieve a certain position.

Status: The status is based on criteria such as B. the social status, whether one is rich or poor, how educated one is etc. assigned.

Reference groups / role expectations: Depending on the individual, there are different reference groups . Using the example of a teacher, several reference groups can be recognized, on the one hand the students, the supervisor and the parents of the students. Of course, all reference groups have special expectations. Students want the class to be non-boring and get good grades, the supervisor wants the teacher to stick to the curriculum and get to class on time, and the parents of the students want the students to learn and bring home good grades.

Sanctions: A distinction is made between positive and negative sanctions. Positive sanction is e.g. B. a bonus or a promotion, negative sanctions are punishments or the like.

Role conflict: A role conflict is a conflict between the reference groups of an individual. Here (example: teacher) the teacher wants to meet everyone's expectations, although this is very difficult. Because the expectations usually contradict each other and the teacher cannot keep them, he finds himself in a role conflict.

Role segment: A role segment is the expectation of a reference group.

Intra role conflict: This is a conflict between the role segments.

Inter- role conflict : This is the contradiction between two roles in a person.

Role set: A role set is the summary of all positions that a person can have.

On the history of role theory

Ferdinand Tönnies met his first sociological definition in 1887 in his work Community and Society (3rd book, § 2), where he described the human being as a social "person" and bearer of (socially differentiated, see below) roles who made the "society" seeks willingly with others for his own benefit ; his concept approximated Marx's " character mask ":

"In relation to the concept of the person, no other empirical subjects can be deducted, except from the individual people, who are understood insofar as everyone is a [...] in thought, consequently there are real and natural persons insofar as people are present, who introduce themselves as such, take on and play this "role", or hold the "character" of a person like a mask in front of their face. "

For Tönnies, the term “person” was contrasted with his concept of the “ self ”: the latter denotes the self-image of the individual, insofar as he seeks the “community” with others in order to be at will, is therefore more related to the “cultural role” ( see below).

Georg Simmel made a further contribution in his distinction between organic and rational circles in which the individual is embedded. People are born into the former, they make demands; the second are self-chosen. The individual presents himself as a “crossing” of such overlapping circles, whose claims conflict with one another. This also results in the uniqueness of the individual, as no other person has the same set of position-specific participation in social circles. The individual plays a “role” (as an office manager, officer, etc.) according to a “preliminary drawing that is given beyond his or her individual life”. It can shape the role individually: "The individual really goes into the pre-drawn role." The reality of life is therefore only a preliminary form of the art of acting. As the actor must each roll carrier "make an impression that he to want what he after the imperative of role should ." But only by a certain "superficiality", the individual irreconcilable obligations and impulses. If the individual were to think through the resulting conflicts in depth, they would have to tear themselves apart. On the one hand, society shapes the individual and, on the other hand, is an emergent phenomenon that grows out of the relationships between the actors. In addition, the relationships are characterized by a mixture of knowing and not knowing about the other, so that one has to develop the image of the other through speculative interpretation.

Social psychological origin

The concept of the “role” was first introduced in a socio-psychological sense by George Herbert Mead . Mead put forward the thesis that one can only develop cooperative social action if one learns to put oneself in the role of the other person . According to Mead, the child already learns this with the help of his games and the imitation of certain “social” roles of adults, that is, by rôle taking . The socialization takes place through the social interactions in the groups ( peer groups ) of his environment.

Anglo-Saxon Sociology

In 1936, Ralph Linton founded the role theory ( The Study of Man ) in sociology, linking status and role with one another. Both are therefore determined by the social structure . According to Linton, an individual has several statuses, each status being assigned a certain number of roles. The individual adjusts these roles over time in order to avoid or resolve role conflicts . In Linton's simplistic theory, there are no inherent dynamics in the social system that could give rise to conflicting roles. These always arise due to external factors (e.g. spatial mobility of the individual or technical progress).

Talcott Parsons took over Linton's approach and used his pattern variables ” to describe the alternative courses of action that are available to an actor in a given role. His student Robert K. Merton developed a multi-dimensional model on this basis . With him, each status corresponds to a role set , that is, a bundle of different roles; each individual also has a status set , that is, a bundle of different statuses. According to Merton, these come about when an actor moves in different social subsystems or institutions . The way in which all individuals shape all of their statuses and the roles that go with them, in turn, forms the social structure . Merton was particularly interested in how individuals proceed in order not to constantly provoke conflict .

A more far-reaching role debate did not take place in Anglo-Saxon sociology. However, there were significant individual contributions, such as the theatrical analogy by Erving Goffman or the discussion of Merton's theses by Rose Laub Coser .

German sociology

In the Federal Republic of Germany, Ralf Dahrendorf took up the American debate and published his work Homo sociologicus in 1958 . In doing so, he introduced the concept of the “social role” into German sociology. This resulted in a lively theoretical debate, partly in the sense of an expansion of the concept, partly also as a result of his epistemological comment that a homo sociologicus , if one thinks of his roles, is, as it were, a “ man without qualities ” for whom society must be a " nuisance ". The contributions by Erhard Wiehn , Judith Jánoska-Bendl and Heinrich Popitz , which Dahrendorf discussed in later editions of his work , deserve special mention .

After 1968 there were also numerous Marxist attempts to refute the competing approach of role theory. In 1968, Dieter Claessens expanded the analysis of the professional and organizational roles that were preferably dealt with in Rolle und Macht to include biosocial roles. Uta Gerhardt also included the cultural roles in 1971, citing Georg Simmel . The fundamental dispute ended with Gerhardt's exhaustive habilitation thesis, role analysis as critical sociology . The approach has long been used empirically , for example in Kurt Holm's industrial- sociological study of the foreman . The essayistic attempt of a completely new theory by Gottfried Eisermann - in role and mask  - had no consequences, probably also because he stood alone as a Paretian in the ruling discourses.

For content-related contributions by the authors mentioned, see sociological role theory below .

Use of terms and theory of the social role

Colloquial language

That someone or something “plays a role” is currently an everyday expression. She thinks that she belongs to a performance, an event or " scene ", often emphasizing: to be important. Example: Come on in your shirt, it doesn't matter anyway. An example of the corresponding use of “social role” would be: “ In group 47 , Hans Werner Richter played a much stronger social than artistic role. "

The phrase "to play a role " has meanwhile (2008) several different meanings in everyday language:

  • "To be important" or deny: "to be unimportant" - usually with the addition of "important", "significant", "particularly" or similar. Example: "Tourism also plays an important role."
  • have a property - example: "In addition to its role as a marker for the direct object, the accusative is used in some prepositions."
  • fulfill a " function " - example: "... without experience having played a role in its creation." (cf. relevance)
The royal family ( Las Meninas ), oil painting from 1656. Diego Velasquez paints himself on the left in the picture in the role of the "court painter" and also scrutinizes the viewer from the picture in his role of the "viewer".

Literary and pictorial anticipations

From Shakespeare the famous saying comes: " All the world's a stage. "( " The whole world is a stage " ).

The later sociological concept of “role” refers to plays in which a “play within a play” is presented when actors play a role figure who in turn plays a role. As early as 1600 in Shakespeare's Hamlet . Shakespeare even reflects this, for he has the character of Hamlet wonder thoughtfully in the face of an actor's outburst of tears : “ What is Hecuba for him , that he should weep for her? “In other literary works, too, the author lets the protagonists problematize their roles.

This reflective role is also not infrequently represented in the visual arts ( see the even double role of observer in the figure on the left).

Sociological role theory

In sociology , a distinction is made between: cultural roles that the respective culture ascribes to the individual ( the priestess , the patriarch ), social differentiations ( the physics teacher , the industrial foreman ), situation -related roles such as eyewitness , elevator driver and biosociologically based roles, e.g. B. the fat , the albino . Depending on the point of view, gender roles are described as social roles or biosociological roles or a differently weighted connection between the two role models.

Social actors find themselves in different social roles throughout their lives; sometimes they act in several roles at the same time in social environments that only overlap to a small extent. In the course of social history , new social roles emerge, change and perish. Role action is influenced by the following aspects:

  • The norms that determine a position
  • a series of external or personal expectations that are placed on an actor in a certain social position see also role expectation ,
  • the positive and negative social sanctions with which other actors want and can influence a role player.

Actors openly or covertly orient their own actions on these three social facts and evaluate observers and the actions of others. Heinrich Popitz defines social role accordingly as a bundle of behavioral norms that a certain category of society or group members has to fulfill in contrast to other categories. Behavioral norms are behaviors that are regularly repeated by all or a certain category of society or group members in a certain constellation and, in the event of a deviation, reinforced by a negative sanction against the deviator.

The role thus classifies the position of the role owner in a social structure with certain role expectations that are derived from the reference groups ( peer groups ). The various reference groups are also in interaction with one another, and their role segments (expectations of a reference group) can harmonize with one another or be in (role) conflict with one another. A great social competence of a role is empathy , which empathy and thus the predictability of another role can be used. The extent of individual design options and freedom within social roles is discussed controversially in research.

The social integration and mutual dependency is also reflected in the image of man in psychotherapy: the human being, the "main actor on the stage of life [, ...] cannot play his story without his fellow actors, who allow him to play his role".

Individual topics of role theory

Cultural roles
The cultural role
of man and woman using
the example of
the Arnolfini wedding
by Jan van Eyck (1396–1441)

In everyday life, cultural roles appear to be “taken for granted” and often only become conscious and available through major breaks, such as the transformation of political systems, the foundation of religions or political and social conflicts . For example, were in the late antiquity through the Christianity the slaves to " human upgraded" because for the salvation of their souls Jesus was crucified. As a result of the women's movement , the cultural roles characterized as “ female ” or “ male ” in western industrial societies have been shaken and can be modified in different ways.

The “ total role ” ( Klaus Allerbeck ) of the “ students ” in Western societies can be understood as a borderline case of a cultural role , which from the 1970s onwards changed to a socially differentiated role among others.

The court jester
Sebastián de Morra
Oil painting on canvas
by Velázquez 1636
- a professional role
Socially differentiated roles

Socially differentiated roles have attracted the most sociological attention, especially as a result of the division of labor and the resulting numerous professional roles .

In US sociology, Robert K. Merton has worked out the significant difference between intra- personal and inter- personal role conflicts . Intrapersonal the foreman must, for example, in this role between the expectations of his subordinates and his superiors shaping his personal role and has thereby according Kurt Holm three reel types to choose from: "buck up, take down" (1) "cyclists" = , (2) "buddy" or (3) "changing partisanship", depending on the factual and distanced reasons. Interpersonal he would have to find his own role compromise with his other roles as a works council member, family man, club member, hobbyist, etc.

Ralf Dahrendorf has the difference between the by negative sanctions "reinforced Must expectations underlined" the characterized by negative and positive sanctions "target expectations" and supported by positive sanctions "Can Expectations": The foreman must corruption be avoided, it should Do not make any reference group (plant management, staff members) permanently dissatisfied, and he can be personally understanding.

In the area of ​​differentiated roles, there is also evidence with which the term “ role ” has been adopted from the theater - compare in particular Erving Goffman , for whom the “theater” simile with “front stage” and “back stage” is more of a central concern is the "role" term. But he described, for example, the sudden “role” change of an actor “on the stage” and “behind the festoons ” ( cf. role distance ) or the “zero role” of a lackey in whose presence nobles talk, argue, even intimate become as if he wasn't there ( cf. contempt ).

Situational roles
The handover of Breda
oil painting by Velázquez - winner and conquered
each as situational roles

Situational roles emerge unexpectedly, ad hoc , whenever a drunk man joins a funeral. Nevertheless, the role expectations, norms and sanctions that arise are not freely improvised every time. They are pre-structured by different circumstances when - in the example - suddenly it comes down to presence of mind, a more sociobiological dowry, or gender, a more cultural pattern , or the more socially differentiated occupation of an actor . Situations are on the one hand the work area of ​​very keen-eyed sociological observers, classically by Georg Simmel , currently by Roland Girtler . On the other hand, the investigation of situational role models is more the task of special sociologies that deal with social problem areas, such as the sociology of work (studies by Konrad Thomas ) and the sociology of catastrophes , where this field was dealt with by Wolf R. Dombrowsky .

Border area between sociology and biology
Niobe tries to protect the last of their 14 children -
a biotic role .
Roman copy of the Greek central figure of a group around 350 BC BC, Florence

There are roles that are closely linked to the (bio) sociological animalism of humans, also called " biotic " roles.

Primates other than humans obviously also know “the big one” or “the loud one” and develop special forms of behavior in groups towards them as well as towards others. Such roles were seldom discussed in sociology , an exception was Dieter Claessens in Role and Power and The Concrete and the Abstract . Such roles are presumably particularly significant for the behavior of the toddler, because it has not yet internalized the social roles in the narrower sense - that is, the cultural, differentiated or situational roles ; “A stranger next to / above me” (the “ black man ”) probably appears to him simply in the biotic role of the dangerous predator .

Biotic roles can also be a professional problem, for example in palliative medicine and thanatosociology on the subject of “the dying person”.

Critique of the role concept

In actor-related , often microsociologically focused sociological theories, the concept of the “social role” is used as a matter of course (see literature ).

On the other hand, there are collective theories - for example structural functionalism or ethnomethodology - that are distanced to negative . Because they understand the always necessary role compromises of the actors as misconduct or as “ Eurocentric ” and analyze them with other terms, such as “dysfunctional” or “ cultural imperialistic ”.

Where “theories of society” are differentiated from “sociological theories”, for example in Marxism or systems theory , “role” is either vehemently rejected as a dangerous competitive term, or it is simply ignored: Frigga Haug, as a Marxist, objected that both history society and their economic conditions as the dialectical relationship between the individual and society with the term "role" in the individual to be laid; the theatrical metaphor “role” also facilitates self-deception. Demands for roles therefore represent an external superiority with which there is a risk that the individual will withdraw into " inner emigration " - see role distance . Accordingly, social conditions appear to be unalterable. A system-theoretical discussion of the term “role” is still pending.

The Australian male researcher Raewyn Connell criticizes the concept of cultural role as the fact that “masculinity” is not a role behavior at all, but a social practice . Similarly, says Pierre Bourdieu from a "gender-practice" (a gender habitus ) or sex habit .



Classic studies


Applied role theory

  • Juri Hälker: Works council members in role conflicts. Business policy thinking between co-management and counterpower . Hampp, Mering 2004, ISBN 3-87988-800-0 ( e-book ).
  • Thomas Herrmann, Isa Jahnke, Kai-Uwe Loser: The support of role assignment and role assumption. An approach to designing knowledge management and CSCL systems . In: Gerd Szwillus, Jürgen Ziegler (Hrsg.): Interaction in motion . Teubner, Wiesbaden 2003.

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Ferdinand Tönnies: Community and Society , Darmstadt 2005, p. 151
  2. Georg Simmel: Sociology , Leipzig 2008, p. 326 f.
  3. Georg Simmel: On the philosophy of the actor. In: The individual law , ed. by Michael Landmann. New edition Frankfurt 1987, p. 80.
  4. ^ Simmel: On the philosophy of the actor. P. 94.
  5. According to a diary note from Simmel: Michael Landmann (Ed.): Introduction to: Georg Simmel, The individual law , new edition Frankfurt 1987, p. 17.
  6. George Herbert Mead: Mind, Self & Society , Chicago 1934, pp. 254, 150
  7. ^ Ralph Linton: Man, Culture, Society . Hippocrates, Stuttgart 1979
  8. ^ Talcott Parsons, The Social System , 1951
  9. ^ Robert K. Merton, Social Theory and Social Structure , 1949
  10. Erving Goffman: The presentation of self in everyday life [German We all play theater ], 1956
  11. ^ Ralf Dahrendorf: Homo sociologicus , 1958, 16th ed. 2006
  12. Dieter Claessens: Role and Power , 1968
  13. ^ Uta Gerhardt: role analysis as critical sociology . Luchterhand, Neuwied 1971
  14. ^ Also in: Dieter Claessens: Rolle und Macht , 1968
  15. Gottfried Eisermann: role and mask . Mohr, Tübingen 1991
  16. ^ Encyclopedia: Aachen. DB special volume: Wikipedia , autumn 2004, p. 232.
  17. ^ Encyclopedia: Accusative. DB special volume: Wikipedia , autumn 2004, p. 4979.
  18. ^ Encyclopedia: A priori. DB special volume: Wikipedia , autumn 2004, p. 101.
  19. ^ All the world's a stage, | And all the men and women merely players: | They have their exits and their entrances… . In: “ As You Like It ”, Act II, Scene 7.
  20. Shakespeare: Hamlet. Prince of Denmark Stuttgart, Leipzig, Berlin, Vienna DVA 1891 (the original published between 1598 and 1602). - Hamlet / Act Two on Wikisource
  21. Heinrich Popitz: The concept of the social role as an element of sociological theory . Mohr, Tübingen 1975
  22. ^ Walter Schmidt: Balance between work and family. Co-evolution towards efficient and family-conscious management. (PDF; 3.2 MB) In: Dissertation to obtain the doctoral degree of the Philosophical-Pedagogical Faculty of the Catholic University of Eichstätt. 2009, accessed January 1, 2011 . P. 118
  23. ^ Robert K. Merton: The role set. Problems of Sociological Theory . In: Heinz Hartmann (Ed.): Modern American Sociology. Recent contributions to sociological theory . Enke, Stuttgart 1967; Pp. 255-267
  24. ^ Ralf Dahrendorf: Homo Sociologicus . 16th edition, VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, Wiesbaden 2006
  25. Erving Goffman: We all play theater . Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt a. M. 1997
  26. Dieter Claessens: role and power . [1968], 3rd edition, 1974
  27. Dieter Claessens: The concrete and the abstract . 1980
  28. Frigga Haug: Critique of the role theory. 1994
  29. Raewyn (Robert) Connell: The Made Man . 1999, p. 39ff.
  30. Pierre Bourdieu: The male rule . Frankfurt a. M. 2005