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Ann. Rev. Sociol. 1986. 12:67-92 Copyright ? 1986 by Annual Reviews Inc. All rights reserved
RECENT DEVELOPMENTSIN ROLE THEORY
B. J. Biddle
Columbia, Centerfor Researchin Social Behavior, Universityof Missouri-Columbia, Missouri 65211
Role theory concerns one of the most important features of social life, characteristicbehavior patternsor roles. It explains roles by presumingthat persons are members of social positions and hold expectationsfor their own behaviorsand those of otherpersons. Its vocabularyand concernsare popular and among social scientistsandpractitioners, role conceptshave generateda lot of research. At least five perspectives may be discriminatedin recent work organizational, within the field: functional, symbolic interactionist,structural, andcognitive role theory. Much of role researchreflectspracticalconcernsand derivedconcepts, and researchon four such concepts is reviewed:consensus, conformity, role conflict, and role taking. Recent developmentssuggest both centrifugal and integrative forces within the role field. The former reflect differingperspectivalcommitmentsof scholars,confusions anddisagreements over use of role concepts, andthe fact thatrole theoryis used to analyzevarious forms of social system. The latterreflect the shared,basic concernsof the field and efforts by role theorists to seek a broad version of the field that will accommodatea wide range of interests.
Role theoryposes an intriguingdilemma. On the one hand, the conceptof role is one of the most popular ideas in the social sciences. At least 10% of all articles currently published in sociological journals use the term role in a reviews of social technicalsense, chapterson role theoryappearin authoritative psychology, essay volumes on role theory appearregularly, endless applications of role ideas may be found in basic texts for sociology and social 67 0360-0572/86/08 15-0067$02.00
psychology, and role theoryprovides a perspectivefor discussing or studying persistin many social issues. On the otherhand, confusion and malintegration role theory. Authors continue to differ over definitions for the role concept, over assumptionsthey make about roles, and over explanationsfor role phenomena. And formalderivationsfor role propositionshave been hardto find. This dilemma has promptedsome authorsto write damningreviews of role theory. Nevertheless, substantialreasons exist for the popularityof the role concept. Role theory exhibits an agreed-uponset of core ideas, and empirical researchthatuses these ideas flowers. The philosophicalstanceof role theoryis attractiveand useful in efforts to amelioratehuman problems. Role theory offers opportunities to integrate key interests of researchersin sociology, also suggestthatexplanapsychology, and anthropology.Recentcontributions tion in role theory is now becoming more formal. Consequently,the focus of this essay is moreupon synthesisthancriticismof the field. I review ideas basic of to role theory, examinetreatment these ideas in severalperspectivesof social...