Role, Social

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Role, Social


the totality of norms defining the behavior of persons in a social system as a function of their status or position; also, the behavior that represents the realization of these norms.

In role-oriented descriptions, a society or a social group is represented as a set of specific social positions (for example, worker, scholar, schoolboy, husband, and soldier). A person is obliged to obey the “social demand” or expectations of other persons associated with his social position. In meeting this social demand, a person chooses one of several possible variants for executing a social role. (For example, a student may be lazy or diligent.)

The concept of the social role was proposed independently by the American sociologists R. Linton and G. H. Mead in the 1930’s. Linton interpreted social role as a segment of the social structure, which he described as a system of norms. Mead discussed social roles on the level of direct personal interactions, or “role-playing,” during which social norms are assimilated as a person pictures himself in the role of another, and the social element of the personality takes shape. Linton’s definition of social role as the “dynamic aspect of a status” was consolidated in structural functionalism and elaborated by T. Parsons, A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, and R. Merton. Mead’s ideas were developed in interactionalist sociology and psychology. Despite the differences between them, the two approaches share a conception of social role as the intersection between the individual and society—the point at which individual behavior becomes social behavior and individual characteristics and inclinations confront the prevailing, normative directives of society. As a result of this confrontation, people are selected for various social roles. Of course, in reality role expectations are always ambiguous. Moreover, a person may experience role conflict if his various social roles are incompatible.

Recent Western sociological and psychological theories are marked by efforts to overcome the notion that man is a robotlike, culturally and socially programmed being—a notion that is characteristic of the concept of social role. Associated with this trend are calls for a return to the study of the subjective determinants of human behavior and man’s “inner essence” (C. Rogers and A. Maslow of the USA).

The emergence of the concept of social role reflected a progressive tendency to shift from individualistic interpretations of the personality to the understanding of the person as a social phenomenon. The concept of social role is also used in Marxist sociology and psychology. In the 19th century, Marx emphasized that impersonal roles are characteristic of social relations, but at the same time he objected to individualistic theories of the personality and of self-consciousness. The Marxist conception of social role differs from the functionalist and interactionalist conceptions. In analyzing the social structure of society, Marxism assigns crucial importance to class structure, in relation to which other social roles are derivative or secondary.

The role approach, which is based on a static model of society, is inadequate to describe social development and its foundation, the creative, transforming activity of human beings. Human activity is not confined to role, or patterned behavior, which cannot account for diverse forms of deviant and spontaneous behavior, including innovative activity, which creates new norms and new social roles. Likewise, the structure of the personality is not reducible to a collection of social roles. The internalization and subordination of social roles always presuppose concrete, highly stable individuality, which develops in the course of an individual’s life.


Kon, I. S. Sotsiologiia lichnosti. Moscow, 1967.
Neimann, L. I., and J. W. Hughes. “The Problem of the Concept of Role: A Resurvey of the Literature.” Social Forces, 1951, vol. 30.
Parsons, T. The Social System. New Delhi [1972].
Dahrendorf, R. Homo Sociologicus, 5th ed. Cologne, 1965.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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