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Social Roles and Identity

Social Roles

Social roles are the socially defined expectations of an individual in a given status or occupying a specific social position.

In sociology a status is a position an individual holds within a society. A status could be a job, such as doctor or plumber, or another kind of social position, such as parent, sibling, neighbor, or friend. An individual holds many different statuses. At one time an individual can be a dentist, a father, a son, a coach, and a school volunteer, for example. All the statuses an individual holds are called a status set.

For every status there are associated social roles. A social role is behavior associated with a social status. This behavior or set of behaviors are based on socially defined expectations of an individual in a given status or social position. Just as people hold a status set (multiple statuses), they can also have a role set for each status—a group of roles expected for that status. For example, some social roles connected to the status of teacher include helping students understand a subject, giving grades, modeling academic tone, maintaining discipline in the classroom, and looking out for students' well-being. Roles help people interact. Through socialization, individuals learn how to perform social roles. They learn to behave—and anticipate behavior in others—in the ways society expects.
Individuals occupy and perform multiple social roles. Different roles carry different expected behaviors. Part of socialization is learning the expectations attached to social roles.

Personal Identity and Social Identity

Identity is connected to the understandings people hold about who they are and what is meaningful for them.

Identity refers to people's sense of who they are and the characteristics that define them. People's sense of identity is closely connected to what they find meaningful and important. Social statuses and roles are woven into identity and can include age, gender, race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, national origin, religion, and socioeconomic class.

Sociologists distinguish between two types of identity: the personal identity, also called the self-identity, and the social identity. Personal identity is a sense of who one is, including personality traits, beliefs, and values. It is how individuals see, think about, and evaluate themselves. For example, people might see themselves as smart, creative, athletic, and funny or as lacking intelligence, creativity, athletic ability, or humor. These perceptions make up the individual's personal identity. American sociologist Robert K. Merton (1910–2003) argues that such a perception can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy—when a belief, which is untrue, influences an individual's behavior in a way that the belief becomes true. For example, students who believe they will fail a test might not study because they do not believe that studying will make a difference for them. Or they might become so stressed and anxious while taking the test, because they are convinced they cannot pass, that they do not perform well. In these situations, the lack of studying or the increased anxiety result in the students failing the test. Their initial belief––their perception that they could not pass––led to behavior that makes the belief become a reality. However, personal identity is not static. It evolves over a lifetime, so an individual's personal identity at age 18 is not the same as the personal identity at age 50 or 60.

Social identity is people's sense of who they are, based on social group memberships or social categories. Those groups can be based on the individual's gender, race, and class, as well as characteristics such as occupation and education level. Social identities can shape personal identities. If an individual identifies as a business professional, the person will often begin to dress, speak, and behave as members of that group—business professionals—do.

In the past, when people were less mobile and societies more homogenous, identity was largely defined by membership in social groups, such as a person's religion, nationality, ethnicity, or social class. Today, as individuals have more interaction with a wider range of people and ideas, they have more freedom to create diverse identities.