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Role theory is designed to explain how individuals who occupy particular social positions are expected to behave and how they expect others to behave. Role theory is based on the observation that people behave predictably and that an individual’s behavior is context-specific, based on their social position and situation. Role theory is often described using the metaphor of the theater.
There has been substantial debate over the meaning of the key concept in role theory: that of role. A role can be defined as a social position, behavior associated with a social position, or a typical behavior. Some theorists have suggested that roles are expectations about how an individual ought to behave, while others consider how individuals actually behave in a given social position. Others have suggested that a role is a characteristic behavior or expected behavior, a part to be played, or a script for social conduct.
Theorists have used the term role to connote characteristic behaviors, social parts to be played, or social conduct, depending on the theorist’s definition. While some agreement exists that the basic concerns of role theory are with characteristic behaviors, parts to be played, and scripts for behavior, theorists differ on whether roles are norms, beliefs, or preferences. Because the term is used in everyday language, imprecision in the sociological definition has led to misinterpretations of role theory itself and some disagreement concerning key aspects of role theory (e.g., whether expectations about behaviors associated with social positions are based on norms, beliefs, or preferences).
- Turner, R. H. (2001) Role theory. In: Turner, J. H. (ed.), Handbook of Sociological Theory. Kluwer Academic/ Plenum Publishers, New York.