Role Theory

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Understanding Intimate Partner Violence through Role Theory: A Concept Paper

Introducing Role Theory

Role theory is a sociological framework that has been used to explain sets of relational patterns between people across varying contexts. It seeks to explain one of the most important characteristics of human social behavior – the fact that how people act, behave and speak are not separate, unique, disconnected but rather, are reflective of certain patterns and arrangements that depend on the social context and the actors in these contexts (Mangus, 1957; Biddle, 1986). To illustrate, within the context of an intimate relationship such as marriage, violence between partners can be tied to the particular patterns and arrangements of acting, behaving and speaking between partners – such as earning money, rearing children, taking care of the home and initiating sexual relations. Although several versions of the theory have been explicated by scholars, there appears to be agreement that role theory is mainly about three interrelated concepts: (1) patterned and characteristic social behaviors, (2) parts or identities as assumed by social participants, and (3) scripts or expectations for behavior that are understood and followed by actors in a particular social context (Biddle, 1986). For instance, adopting a role theory perspective to understanding intimate partner violence necessitates looking at the patterned and characteristic social behaviors of intimate partners in a relationship, the parts or identities that each partner plays in the relationship, and the scripts or expectations that are interpreted and adhered to by the partners in a particular relational context, specifically in situations of violent encounters.

Furthermore, the theory also allows for an understanding of the relationships among the individual, collective and structural levels of society (Turner, 2001), as it deals with the organization and connection of social behavior between the micro, macro and intermediate levels of society. Thus, within role theory, an analysis of intimate partner violence entails looking into the individual behaviors of partners in a violent relationship and tracing the linkages of these behaviors to the social structures that exist in a particular society. Defining Roles

Central to role theory is the concept of role. Several definitions have been ascribed to the concept of role in the literature. On a general level, the concept of role includes a description of behaviors, characteristics, norms and values held by a person (Thomas & Biddle, 1966). Another definition identifies role as a cluster of behaviors and attitudes that are understood as belonging together, such that a person is considered as acting consistently when enacting the various components of a single role and variably when he or she fails to do so (Turner, 2001). For instance, the traditional masculine role can be characterized as aggressive, ambitious, dominant, independent and persistent whereas the traditional feminine role can be illustrated as agreeable, courteous, sympathetic, trusting, understanding and warm (Ellington & Marshall, 1997). As such, a partner who plays the masculine role must enact behaviors and attitudes that are typical of this role, such as being aggressive, dominant, independent and agentic. For this partner cast in the masculine role, to be passive, dependent and agreeable implies incompatibility with the traditional masculine role.

Specifically, a role may refer to behavior that is expected of people who occupy particular social categories such as statuses (or positions) in both formal and informal systems (Montgomery, 1998 as cited in Lynch, 2007; Biddle & Thomas, 1979 as cited in Lynch, 2007). Roles may also be reflective of the cultural values and norms in a particular society (Zurcher, 1983 as cited in Lynch, 2007). Roles may also be conceptualized as a resource that social actors try to utilize to achieve...
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