Types of Social Roles: Meaning and Examples

Man is a social animal. Human beings interact with each other in their day-to-day lives and the lives of different people in the society are entangled with each other, in one way or the other. In the society, each of us is related to others through relations, either personal or public. The subject of sociology studies the relations people share with each other in a society. The defined positions that each person owns in a society are referred to as ‘Status’. The status of each person can be relative to those of others. Status of a person can be of two types, either Ascribed (assigned to a person by birth) or Achieved (earned through effort). Each person in a given social status is expected to have certain responsibilities in the society. These expectations on people of a given social status, in terms of behaviour, obligations and rights are called ‘Social Roles’. This article tries to describe in brief social roles, enumerate the different types of social roles and cite examples.

Social roles include a defined set of actions assigned to every individual in the society. In the concept of social roles, the world is imagined as a stage and the individuals who take up different social roles are thought of as actors. The role theory, which is based on the observation that people behave in a predictable way, puts forward the thought that the activities of a person are out of defined categories. It says that the behaviour of a person is context-specific, based on factors like social position. For example, the social roles of an electrician, a doctor, a psychologist, a mother, a grandfather are all different from each other. When you have achieved the status of a doctor, you are expected to play the social roles of being able to provide treatment for illnesses, be knowledgeable, be able to prescribe the necessary medication and so on. It is expected that different individuals acquiring the same kind of social position behave in a uniform way.

According to Bruce Biddle, a famous sociologist, the five major models of social role theory are:

  • Functional Role Theory – examines social roles with importance to shared social norms.
  • Symbolic Interaction Role Theory – focuses on the impact of individual interpretation of responses to behaviour on social roles.
  • Structural Role Theory –  utilizes mathematical models to examine the influence of the society as a whole on roles
  • Organizational Role Theory– looks into the role development in organizations
  • Cognitive Role Theory – examines the relationship between expectations and behaviours

The different categories of social roles in sociology are:

  • Cultural Roles – Culture is one of the major attributes of society. People often engage with different aspects of culture. A person who is into the domain of culture has to fulfil the expectations on him/her. For example, a priest has to fulfil duties like performing rites and ceremonies.
  • Social Differentiation – This refers to the changes in social roles with profession and relations. Individuals practising different professions, such as teaching, nursing and plumbing have different roles to fulfil.
  • Situation – specific roles – People take up different roles, according to the situation. Sometimes, a person turns out to be a victim of an accident, or an eye witness due to unpredictable situations.
  • Bio-sociological roles – Human beings in the environment have multiple responsibilities towards the conservation and preservation of nature and its members.
  • Gender roles – We are expected to play roles according to the gender we belong to, like the roles of father, mother, woman etc.

There are different concepts related to Social Roles. Let us see in detail some of those:

  • Role conflict: Role conflict refers to the situation that happens when a person is expected to act in contradictory roles in everyday life. The conflicts can either be a product of contradictory interests or when there exists different norms on what the responsibilities of a particular role are. Role conflicts happen in personal as well as professional life. An example of role conflict is the situation that occurs when a working mother is judged to not fit into the role of a “good wife”.
  • Role Distancing: Role distancing refers to the practice of distancing oneself from a role. For example, an actor may have to put into practice the concept of role distancing very often, between professional and personal perspectives.
  • Role exit: The process of discontinuing from a role in order to establish a new one. An example is the transformation of an individual into a parent.
  • Role expectation: This refers to the set of actions that are expected from a person playing a certain role. For instance, each profession has a specific set of roles that are expected from them.
  • Role performance: Role performance is a term that refers to the level of performance of a person with respect to the role that s/he is assigned with.
  • Role reversal: It refers to the act of people exchanging their roles with each other. For examples, a psychologist can at time seek help from a close friend or relative.
  • Role segregation: Refers to the separating of role partners from each other. For examples, a judge of Court would not appear for a case which s/he has personal connections with.
  • Role set: It refers to the cumulative set of roles that an individual has, from various roles that s/he plays.
  • Role strain: This refers to the stress that a person experiences in meeting expectations and obligations associated with any role. An example is when a person is working on a laptop, but wishes to cook food for his children at the same time.
  • Role taking: The act of assuming to take up the role of another person so as to understand things from their point of view. An example is while an advocate tries to think from the point of view of the accused while examining a case.


McLeod, S. A. (2008). Social roles. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/social-roles.html

Bell, Kenton, ed. 2013. “role.” In Open Education Sociology Dictionary. Retrieved April 27, 2020 (http://sociologydictionary.org/role/).


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