Status and Role Research Paper

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The closely connected concepts of ‘status’ and ‘role’ have a long and complex history in a number of different traditions of social thought, but their contemporary meanings developed during the first half of the twentieth century. Despite it having been Shakespeare who claimed that ‘all the world’s a stage,’ it was the social psychologists of the early twentieth century who systematically employed the concept of role and so paved the way for later ‘dramaturgical’ approaches to social life. This work also prepared the way for those who would develop the idea of status as the structural position corresponding to a role. The term status, however, has been used in two quite different ways, only one of which is directly relevant to this discussion. One usage has referred to hierarchical differences of prestige and social honor in systems of social stratification; the other has referred, more generally, to any structural position or location in a social system. It is the second sense that will be discussed in this research paper.

1. Status As Structural Position

The hierarchical concept of status was popularized by Max Weber, who contrasted stratification by status with stratification by class (Scott 1996). In the 1930s, however, cultural anthropologists introduced the idea of status as a position or location in a social structure (Linton 1936). This usage was rapidly adopted by structural functionalist sociologists. While this initially led to some confusion about whether or not particular statuses were hierarchically ranked, the new usage soon became established (Parsons 1942b). Some resolved this confusion by using ‘position’ or ‘location’ in preference to status (Warner 1952, p. 46), and this practice will be followed in this research paper.

The idea of status as structural position originated in the idea that social structure consisted of culturally defined institutions. This had its origins in Durkheim, but it was the development of a clear understanding of culture by American anthropologists (Kroeber 1917, Kluckhohn 1954) that gave the idea its contemporary form. It became a central concept in sociological analysis (Parsons 1951).

It was held that the culture of a society establishes a set of social institutions. These are standardized normative patterns that people are expected to follow in their social actions. They regulate individual and group behavior by defining the nature of their social relations. Institutions define ‘proper, legitimate or expected modes of action or of social relationship’ (Parsons 1940, p. 53), and so guide and channel behavior. Parsons defined social structure as ‘a patterned system of social relationships of actors’ (Parsons 1945, p. 230).

The institutionalized expectations that people share define their social positions relative to other positions, and to the performances of the individuals who occupy these (Parsons 1942b, p. 143). This knowledge of social positions provides people with the conceptual maps that they use to organize their social actions. Like all ideas, they are contained in individual minds. However, because they are shared, there is a reciprocity of expectations that solidifies them into distinctively collective representations (Davis 1948, p. 87). Social positions are Durkheimian social facts with the power to constrain the behavior of individuals. We do not simply ‘know’ the social positions that make up our society, we experience social pressure to conform to the expectations they involve.

These pressures are felt through role expectations. Roles define the specific rights and obligations that are entailed in a social position (Dahrendorf 1958, p. 36). They tell us what to do and what to expect others to do (Parsons 1940, p. 54). They provide us with a definition of the situation that sets the limits within which we may legitimately act (Williams 1960).

Some writers used the concept of role to describe the actual behavior associated with a position, but most have recognized that a normative focus requires a concern for expected behavior (Levy 1952, pp. 158– 60). The relationship between expected behavior and actual behavior is very complex, and there is no one-to-one correspondence between norms and behavior. Roles are definitions of what people are expected to do in different situations. They define the goals, the means, and the attitudes that are culturally recognized as legitimate for those who occupy particular social positions.

2. Role Theory

These ideas were taken up during the 1950s as the basis of a ‘role theory’ that tried to set out a comprehensive paradigm for role analysis. The most influential formulation of this was that of Gross et al. (1958), who used it to explore the behavior of school superintendents. They did this using Merton’s (1957) argument that each social position is associated with an array of role-specific forms of behavior that together comprise a ‘role set.’ A medical student, for example, must act as a student not only in relation to other students, but also in relation to teachers, doctors, nurses, social workers, patients, medical technicians, and so on. In each of these relations, the student is likely to encounter different expectations about her or his behavior (Merton 1957, p. 112).

Gross et al. showed that the school superintendent had to negotiate the conflicting expectations held by teachers, parents, children, governors, and ancillary staff. They recognized that this produces varying degrees of strain or conflict in role expectations. The concept of ‘role conflict’ has been central to many applications of role theory.

While this work concentrated on the structural aspects of position and role, it was complemented by those who worked on a social psychology of roles (Newcomb 1950). These writers explored the learning processes through which roles are acquired and the social pressures to conformity that exist in face-to-face situations. Socialization and conformity were central principles for role theorists, and their views have been subject to persistent criticism.

3. Socialization And Conformity

Role theorists see the norms that define social positions as learned through a process of socialization. The expectations of others are internalized in the personality as it is formed. They become objects of moral commitment, and individuals are likely to be strongly attached to them. They tend to regard conformity as a duty (Parsons 1940).

This is associated with the argument that there is consensus over social norms. Members of a society share their moral commitments and so violations are met with guilt or shame in the violator and indignation or condemnation in those whom the deviance affects. Deviance from these shared norms is likely to result in ‘corrective forces’ or sanctions that may vary from mild disapproval to overt coercion. For many, this led to the conclusion that deviance was both infrequent and automatically corrected. Societies were seen as self-regulating systems in which actors had little choice but to conform.

The degree of consensus in a society rarely reaches this level, however, and individuals are never perfectly socialized (Wrong 1961). These points were especially forcefully raised against Parsons, but even he recognized that the ‘completely institutionalized’ social relationship was a rarity. Although broad descriptive contrasts could be drawn between societies in terms of their common values, ‘when dynamic problems of directions and processes of change are at issue, it is essential to give specific attention to the elements of malintegration, tension and strain in the social structure’ (Parsons 1942a, p. 117). Nevertheless, the mainstream of role theory overemphasized both consensus and internalization. It was conflict theorists such as Dahrendorf (1958) who showed that role expectations have to be seen in relation to the distribution of power and that this can give them a solidity that does not depend on a consensus of opinion.

What passes for consensus may be the ideas of a dominant or powerful group (Rex 1961, Shils 1961). A minority may be able to use its resources to institutionalize its own norms for the population as a whole. This may be especially effective where the majority of the population forms a relatively unorganized mass without strong counterinstitutions of its own.

4. Role-Taking And Role-Making

Structural functional and conflict theories of position and role, supported by social psychological theories of socialization and conformity, lay at the heart of mainstream sociology from the 1940s to the 1960s. During the 1960s, however, radical and forceful objections were raised against this. The immediate origin of the sociological concept of role had been Mead’s (1927) account of taking the role of the other, and critics of the mainstream turned to Mead for support. They questioned cultural determinism and its over-socialized image of the actor that saw people as the mere puppets of structural forces. Blumer (1962, p. 189) held that a structure of positions is simply a ‘framework inside of which action takes place.’ It is a conceptual guide for action, not an external, substantial entity or an independent coercive power.

Turner (1962) took this argument to the heart of role theory. He held that the emphasis on conformity gave only a partial view of role behavior. It stressed imitation and ignored innovation, failing to recognize that role-takers were also ‘role-makers.’ Individuals do not simply take over roles as templates for conformist behavior. Turner held that role-taking always required improvisory behavior. The role knowledge that individuals learn during their primary and secondary socialization does not give them precise, programmed instructions for behavior in all the many unique and unpredictable circumstances in which they are likely to find themselves. Individuals tentatively interpret and reinterpret each other’s actions in the situations that they encounter, recreating their roles from the raw materials provided to them during socialization (Turner 1962, p. 23). Shared knowledge of social positions sets the general conditions for action, but it does not fully determine it (Blumer 1962, p. 190). The normative functionalist approach to role taking has to be broadened into a more comprehensive account.

The fullest development of this view was that of Erving Goffman (1959, 1963), who explored the ways in which individuals actively and creatively construct the images that they present in their role behavior. Goffman systematically employed the theatrical metaphor of role-playing, holding that individuals are never merely actors following a script, but are authors as well. Using such ideas as props, scenery, front stage, and back stage, Goffman showed how public performances depend on the more private situations to which individuals can withdraw. He introduced a number of novel concepts, most notably ‘role distance.’

5. A Sense Of Social Structure

The criticisms made by the symbolic interactionists added a whole new dimension to the analysis of position and role. While some of the critics of mainstream views saw this role as a complete alternative to the orthodoxy, others saw it as complementing the structural account. These differences persist, and have been compounded by a newer and more radical line of argument. Influenced by phenomenology and ethnomethodology, Aaron Cicourel has produced the most systematic statement of this critique.

Cicourel asked the fundamental question: how is role-taking possible? His answer was that the taking and making of roles rests on a set of cognitive processes through which actors give meaning to the world and so sustain a ‘sense of social structure’ (Cicourel 1972, p. 11). People do carry role information in their heads, but they must also be able to recognize when one particular position or role is relevant, and they must be able to infer what expectations others have of their behavior. They cannot make sense of their social world simply by drawing on the role and positional knowledge that they have learned during their socialization. Before they can apply norms in particular situations, they must arrive at some kind of understanding of what kind of situation it is. This means that ‘members of a society must acquire the competence to assign meaning to their environment so that surface rules and their articulation with particular cases can be made’ (Cicourel 1968, p. 52). This ability to infer and to impute meaning to situations is a practical skill that is an essential condition for any social life at all. Cicourel sees this skill as an interactional competence, making explicit parallels with Chomsky’s concept of linguistic competence. Though he does not adopt Chomsky’s own rationalist theory of the mind, Cicourel does take over his stress on the generative capacities that are provided by human competences. It is their practical, meaning-making skills that allow people to use their knowledge of social norms to generate appropriate role behavior. The structural aspects of positions and roles, therefore, are seen by Cicourel as resting on the possession of a complex set of cognitive procedures (also termed inductive, interpretive, or inference procedures) that operate in the same way as the deep structure grammatical rules of a language.

Cicourel illustrated these cognitive procedures by drawing on Alfred Schutz’ discussion of the assumptions that people must make for social interaction to be possible. Schutz held that individuals must assume a reciprocity of perspectives between themselves and their potential partners, they must fill in the gaps in their knowledge through the et cetera principle, and they must assume that things occur as ‘normal form.’ These and similar cognitive procedures constitute the mental module that makes it possible for actors to generate appropriate but innovative responses in changing circumstances, despite the fact that they have only fragmentary and uncertain evidence available to them. They allow people to assign meaning and relevance to the objects in their environment and to construct definitions of the situation that allow them to infer which of the norms stored in their memories are relevant. People build a sense of social structure that allows them to orient themselves appropriately in the various situations that they encounter. Once the meaning of a situation has been decided, norms can be invoked on the assumption that there is a consensus among those with whom they interact and that these are, indeed, the appropriate norms. Normative order and role behavior, therefore, are negotiated and constructed on the basis of the underlying sense of social structure that interactional competence makes possible.

6. Conclusion

Status—or position—and role remain central concepts in the normative account of social structure. This normative account does not tell us everything that we need to know about social structure (Lockwood 1956, 1964), but it is an essential aspect of any structural account. The use of these normative concepts, however, must incorporate an awareness of the creative and innovative role-making activities that are integral to all role behavior. It is important to recognize that improvisation and negotiation are essential features of the construction of social action. It is also important to recognize, however, that these processes are possible only because individuals possess certain cognitive skills that allow them to infer the meaning of social situations and to build a sense of the social structures in which they must act. Structural positions and roles are human accomplishments, but they have real consequences for the people who occupy them.


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