Definition of Role Conflict in Sociology

Role Theory, Role Conflict and Role Strain

A business woman working from bed while her child sleeps next to her symbolizes a common form of role conflict that many working mothers experience.
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Role conflict happens when there are contradictions between different roles that a person takes on or plays in their everyday life. In some cases the conflict is a result of opposing obligations which results in a conflict of interest, in others, when a person has roles that have different statuses, and it also occurs when people disagree about what the responsibilities for a particular role should be, whether in the personal or professional realms.

To truly understand role conflict, though, one must first have a solid grasp of how sociologists understand roles, generally speaking.

The Concept of Roles in Sociology

Sociologists use the term "role" (as do others outside of the field) to describe a set of expected behaviors and obligations a person has based on his or her position in life and relative to others. All of us have multiple roles and responsibilities in our lives, that run the gamut from son or daughter, sister or brother, mother or father, spouse or partner, to friend, and professional and community ones too.

Within sociology, role theory was developed by American sociologist Talcott Parsons through his work on social systems, along with German sociologist Ralf Dahrendorf, and by Erving Goffman, with his numerous studies and theories focused on how social life resembles theatrical performance. Role theory was a particularly prominent paradigm used to understand social behavior during the middle of the 20th century.

Roles not only lay out a blueprint to guide behavior, they also delineate the goals to pursue, tasks to carry out, and how to perform for a particular scenario. Role theory posits that a large proportion of our outward day-to-day social behavior and interaction is defined by people carrying out their roles, just like actors do in the theater.

Sociologists believe that role theory can predict behavior; if we understand the expectations for a particular role (such as father, baseball player, teacher), we can predict a large portion of the behavior of people in those roles. Roles not only guide behavior, they also influence our beliefs as the theory holds that people will change their attitudes to be in line with their roles. Role theory also posits that changing behavior requires changing roles.

Types of Role Conflict and Examples

Because we all play multiple roles in our lives, all of us have or will experience one or more types of role conflict at least once. In some cases, we may take on different roles that are not compatible and conflict ensues because of this. When we have opposing obligations in different roles, it may be difficult to satisfy either responsibility in an effective way.

A role conflict can occur, for example, when a parent coaches a baseball team that includes that parent's son. The role of the parent can conflict with the role of the coach who needs to be objective when determining the positions and batting lineup, for example, along with the need to interact with all the children equally.  Another role conflict can arise if the parent's career impacts the time he can commit to coaching as well as parenting.

Role conflict can happen in other ways too. When the roles have two different statuses, the result is called status strain. For example, people of color in the U.S. who have high-status professional roles often experience status strain because while they might enjoy prestige and respect in their profession, they are likely to experience the degradation and disrespect of racism in their everyday lives.

When conflicting roles both have the same status, role strain results. This happens when a person who needs to fulfill a certain role is strained because of obligations or extensive demands on energy, time or resources caused by the multiple roles. For example, consider a single parent who has to work full-time, provide child care, manage and organize the home, help kids with homework, take care of their health, and provide effective parenting.

A parent's role can be tested by the need to fulfill all of these demands simultaneously and effectively.

Role conflict can also ensue when people disagree about what the expectations are for a particular role or when someone has trouble fulfilling the expectations of a role because their duties are difficult, unclear or unpleasant.

In the 21st century, many women who have professional careers experience role conflict when expectations for what it means to be a "good wife" or "good mother" -- both external and internal -- conflict with the goals and responsibilities she may have in her professional life. A sign that gender roles remain fairly stereotypical in today's world of heterosexual relationships, men who are professionals and fathers rarely experience this type of role conflict.

Updated by Nicki Lisa Cole, Ph.D.

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Crossman, Ashley. "Definition of Role Conflict in Sociology." ThoughtCo, May. 17, 2017, Crossman, Ashley. (2017, May 17). Definition of Role Conflict in Sociology. Retrieved from Crossman, Ashley. "Definition of Role Conflict in Sociology." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 24, 2018).