Sociology Role Theory
Mariska van der Horst
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 July 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 July 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0175


Concepts of role theory can be traced back to before 1900, although the use of the term “role” only became common in the 1930s (for more on the origin of role theory see Biddle and Thomas 1966, cited under General Overviews). The basic idea is that individuals have various roles in life and that these roles come with prescriptions on how individuals should behave. Banton 1996 defines a role as “the expected behaviour associated with a social position” (p. 749, cited under General Overviews). A social position (also referred to as a “social status”) is defined by Merton 1957 as “a position in a social system involving designated rights and obligations” (p. 110, cited under Additional General Terminology). Although this basic concept has mostly remained the same over different studies throughout the years (with some exceptions), role theory has developed over time, and many studies have been written in response to weaknesses in earlier descriptions. For example, the theory of role accumulation was developed in response to the focus of the theory of role strain on the negative sides of participating in multiple roles (both described in Multiple Roles). Also, the term “role” is sometimes broadened to also include social status and to include exhibited behavior in addition to expected behavior (George 1993, cited under Critics). As such, one cannot speak of one role theory but only of a collection of role theories. Role theory has inspired, and continues to inspire, much research.

General Overviews

There exist several texts on what role theory is and how it developed over time. Probably the first book that tried to combine various independent texts into one coherent piece on the basics of role theory is Biddle and Thomas 1966. Biddle 1986 gives an excellent overview on how the field has developed in various directions and how different theorists and researchers view core concepts of role theory. Turner 2001 provides a more modern account of what role theory is and how it is developing. Good short introductions also include encyclopedia entries in the International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family 2003 and the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences 2008. How the word “role” is used in social science research can be found in Banton 1996.

  • Banton, Michael. 1996. Role. In The social science encyclopedia. 2d ed. Edited by Adam Kuper and Jessica Kuper, 749–751. London and New York: Routledge Taylor and Francis.

    This entry in the encyclopedia describes the use of the word “role” in social science research. It is a clear but rather broad description.

  • Biddle, Bruce J. 1986. Recent development in role theory. Annual Review of Sociology 12:67–92.

    DOI: 10.1146/

    This paper describes the difficulties that role theory was having and how multiple perspectives on role theory have emerged. It includes key concepts of role theory that seem to encompass these different perspectives. It also features several critics on role theory, the different perspectives in role theory, and various key concepts. Hence, this paper is an excellent way of understanding how various conceptualizations of role theory relate to one another.

  • Biddle, Bruce J., and Edwin J. Thomas, eds. 1966. Role theory: Concepts and research. New York: John Wiley.

    This book starts with four chapters trying to combine the then-current knowledge of role theory in an overview of basic concepts and knowledge. The following forty-seven chapters are selected papers on role theory that give insight into the breadth and depth of studies on role theory. Also contains a bibliography of about 250 references that contributed to role theory.

  • Role Theory. 2003. In International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family.

    This entry shortly describes the structural and interactionist approach to role theory as well as accumulating and changing roles. It applies the theory mainly to the mother role. Good short introduction to role theory with a specific application.

  • Role Theory. 2008. In International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences.

    This entry provides a short historical overview of role theory, describing the structural and interactionist schools of thought as well as how these were integrated after the 1980s.

  • Turner, Jonathan H., ed. 2001. Handbook of sociological theory. New York: Springer Science+Business Media.

    This book contains a couple of chapters that discuss role theory. Where Sheldon Stryker in Chapter 11 mostly discusses structural role theory and its relation to traditional and structural symbolic interactionism, Ralph Turner looks in the next chapter more at interactional role theory. This handbook has a special focus on then-current developments in theory.

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