We all take on different social roles in everyday life. We are an employee at work, a father, mother, son, or daughter at home, a friend among our peers, and so on.
It is but natural that often these roles might require us to perform actions that may conflict with those required by other roles. This is the role conflict theory.
Role conflict is classified as being of two types:
- Intra-role Conflict – This kind of conflict arises out of differing expectations while performing the same role. For instance, a supervisor who leads a team of workers must balance the expectations of the people under him, while also meeting the demands of the company’s board of directors above him. If the employees want greater salaries and shorter working hours, the company’s directors might not view such a demand favorably, resulting in the supervisor finding himself or herself in the middle, experiencing an intra-role conflict.
- Inter-role Conflict – This kind of conflict arises out of opposing demands on the same person while performing different roles. For instance, increased work pressure might lead someone to spend more time at office, whereas his or her family might want them to spend more time with them. Thus, the conflicting demands arising out of their twin roles as a supervisor and a father/ husband/ mother/ wife lead to an inter-role conflict.
Role Conflict Examples
1. The Trolley Problem
The Trolley Problem is a well-known thought experiment in which a person has to make a choice between two outcomes, causing a role conflict.
The simplest formulation of the problem involves a railway man watching a runaway trolley on a track headed for a collision course with several people who are incapable of moving out of its path.
The railway man has a choice to operate a lever and divert the trolley onto an adjacent track, in which case the trolley would go on to overrun a single individual.
In this case, the individual is torn between two choices – to do nothing, and passively witness the trolley run over several people, or to actively intervene, and be directly responsible for the possible death of one single individual ( while saving the lives of several others). This is an example of intra-role conflict.
People who are diaspora (expatriates) find themselves torn between two worlds – that of the land of their birth, and that of their homeland.
This reflects most conspicuously in their political and social views which are often paradoxical. So for instance, members of a particular diaspora might simultaneously be compelled to support the liberal-progressive politics in the country of their residence, while also backing the conservative traditions from the country of their birth.
Lawrence (2013) noted how Tunisian and Turkish diaspora in the US favored progressive movements such as those for LGBTQ rights, secularism, and multiculturalism in the US, but voted for conservative parties in Turkey and Tunisia respectively. Identical behavior has been observed among the Indian diaspora in the US (Khandekar, 2021).
Such behavior stems from a role conflict among members of the diaspora. As residents in a new country, they perform a different role, presenting a specific version of their selves.
On the other hand, the role they perform in the society of their birth may be very different from this new role, demanding adherence to age-old customs and traditions. This is an example of inter-role conflict.
3. Motherhood and the Workplace
Women in the workplace often find themselves coping with conflicting demands of managing a family and household and meeting the demands of the workplace.
This creates a role conflict in which women are expected to balance the different roles they play in each domain.
The popular MBA portal, Poets & Quants notes that the demands of motherhood and raising a family lead to women earning significantly less than men, with the difference in mean salary being as great as 60% 9 years after graduation (Byrne, 2013). This is an example of inter-role conflict.
4. Non-Coms in the Armed Forces
Non-coms or non-commissioned officers in the armed forces are officers who have risen through the ranks of enlisted men, but are not the equivalents of commissioned officers, who are typically the products of officer training academies and elite military schools.
In the U.S., British, Canadian, and Australian armies, the rank of Sergeant, and sometimes that of the Corporal, is considered a non-com. They are the immediate superiors of the enlisted men, and are responsible for their training, fitness, and discipline, acting like drill sergeants, firearm instructors, physical fitness trainers, etc.
Non-coms are considered a crucial link between the officer corps and enlisted men, as the officer corps in most militaries are separated from the enlisted men by a wide gulf made up of socio-economic class, education, and affluence.
This crucial role as a bridge between the officers and the men put non-coms in a position of frequent role conflict.
On the one hand, they are expected to act as the eyes and ears of the officers to whom they report in the military’s chain of command, enforcing orders and ensuring discipline among the men.
On the other hand, having risen from among the ranks of the enlisted men, and belonging to the same socio-economic strata as them, they have far more in common with the enlisted men than with the officers (Devilbiss & Perrucci, 1982).
5. The Third World
The term ‘Third World’ was coined during the Cold War to denote countries that were neither a part of the US-led NATO bloc ( called the First World), nor of the USSR-led Soviet bloc of Warsaw Pact countries (called the Second World).
These included most African, Asian, and Latin American countries newly emerging from under colonial rule.
In principle, these countries denounced the division of the world into militarized blocs by the former imperial and colonial powers as a continuation of colonial exploitation. In practice, however, almost all countries were forced to rely on one bloc or another to meet their economic development needs.
For instance, India, a founding member of the Non-aligned Movement (NAM) that vociferously opposed formerly colonized countries joining any military bloc, was known to rely heavily on the USSR which supplied much of the technology, training, heavy industrial equipment, and military hardware to India until the early 90s.
Thus, the nations of the Third World found themselves in a role conflict between their espoused principles of non-alignment, and their practical need to rely on one of the two blocs for their fundamental needs. This led to nearly all such nations following a policy of what George Herbert Mead termed “pragmatism”.
Euthanasia is the pracitce of wilfully ending a life, usually for medical reasons. It can be voluntary, in that the person undergoing it gives their consent, or non-voluntary, as in cases where a patient is in coma or life support and unable to give their consent.
Euthanasia induces role conflict among all the actors involved.
For instance, in a case where a person has been in a coma or life support for a long time with little to no chance of recovery, the family members experience a role conflict between acting as the protectors and caregivers of their kin and balancing their financial and familial obligations to their other family members. The financial and time cost of continuing to care for the terminally ill family member may become more than they can bear.
Similarly, the doctors or medical professionals performing the act of euthanasia undergo role conflict, having sworn to protect life, but being asked to take one instead. This is an example of an intra-role conflict.
At an even higher level, the act of euthanasia presents a role conflict to the state which gives sanction to the act.
The fundamental duty of the state is to protect the lives of its citizenry. By sanctioning euthanasia, the state is approving the taking of a life in a case where the subject has not violated any laws of the state.
For these reasons, euthanasia continues to be a contentious issue in the field of ethics.
7. Gender Role Conflict
Gender role conflict occurs in a situation where a person feels unable to meet the expectations of adhering to their assigned gender stereotypes.
A common example is transgender individuals who do not identify with the gender associated with their biological sex.
Someone designated a female at birth may not feel comfortable with the gender associations of that sex, resulting in gender role conflict.
Gender conflict also occurs in individuals who identify with their biological sex, but sometimes find it difficult to cope with the social expectations of their gender role.
Another common example is the performance of masculinity, and the pressure it puts on several men ( O’Neill, 2015). So, for instance, unemployed men might experience gender role conflict as society expects them to be providers for their family as men, but their inability to provide even for themselves pits their reality at odds with their role expectations.
8. Public Defenders
Lawyers and legal professionals experience role conflict very frequently. It is not uncommon for public defenders to attempt to help criminals get away with committing their crime.
In such a case, the lawyer finds themselves in a role conflict. On the one hand is their professional obligation as a lawyer to defend their client until proven guilty by the prosecution.
On the other hand are their conscience and their ethics, which might conflict with their decision to defend the said client.
9. Correctional Officers
Correctional officers in prisons are tasked with rehabilitating prisoners by providing them counseling and therapy.
To do this, they need to gain the trust of the prisoners by first socially interacting with them.
However, as part of their responsibilities, they are also required to be socially distant from prisoners and not build intimate relations with them. This creates a situation of intra-role conflict among correctional officers ( Hepburn & Albonetti, 1980).
10. The Crying Baby Problem
The crying baby problem is a hypothetical problem that provides a general template for several inter-role conflict situations.
In simple terms, the problem can be summarized thus: a group of people are being chased by criminals intent on killing them. They seek shelter in a field.
Suddenly, a baby held by a mother from among the group begins to cry. The mother now has two options – either to smother the baby, and save herself and the rest of the group, or to allow the baby to cry and risk certain death for everyone.
In this case, the woman’s role as a mother, and her responsibilities to the rest of the group come in conflict with each other.
Glocalization occurs when global culture intersects with local culture, causing people to feel like they need to choose between global or local cultures.
It often presents young people with a conflict between embracing the traditional or indigenous cultural values and practices that may disadvantage their chances of getting a job in a globalized world; or embracing global culture (e.g. switching to English at work) which can help them integrate with the rest of the world.
Glocalization is the middle-ground that attempts to resolve this role conflict: people embrace the good parts of global culture as well as the good parts of local culture to create a cultural hybrid.
The Origins of Role Conflict: Role Theory
The concept of “role” in sociology goes much deeper than its everyday meaning. In sociology, the very idea of the human self is thought of as being socially constructed by absorbing external influences.
This means that we learn how to be ourselves by observing others, and in turn, end up performing a “role” even when nobody’s watching.
There are three components of the role theory:
- Actor – The individual subject
- Role – The many expectations on the individual subject arising out of his her position in society
- Personality – The result of the actor reacting to the various roles available to him in society.
The role theory holds that an actor’s behavior can be predicted by analyzing the role and personality ( Getzels & Guba, 1954).
The role theory in sociology is built upon the foundation of several pioneering sociologists. Key among them are:
- George Herbert Mead (1863 – 1931) – George Herbert Mead is best known for two interrelated concepts that shaped role theory – pragmatism and symbolic interactionism. Pragmatism is the notion that there does not exist an ultimate reality, and that individuals create their own reality by accepting what they find useful from their external environment, and discarding what they don’t. Symbolic interactionism is the idea that meanings of objects and concepts are derived from social interaction. .
- Erving Goffman (1922 – 1982) – Erving Goffman was a Canadian sociologist best known for his work The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, one of the most influential books in sociology. Goffman compared the everyday interactions of people to a theatrical performance, in which each individual attempts to present a specific side of their self to others, while hiding other sides. The more we interact with others, the more we learn how to fine tune this “performance” that we put on, which is, in effect, indistinguishable from our true self.
- Richard Schechner (b. 1934) – Richard Schechner is a cultural anthropologist who is considered the founder of performance studies in the social sciences. Performance studies is a field which uses performances – theatrical, musical, dance, etc. – to study the world. Schechner illuminated the intimate links between theater and anthropology, showing how a theater performance is a metaphor for the performances of our everyday lives. Closely linked to Schechner were anthropologists Victor Turner and Clifford Geertz, who studied cultures in Africa and Asia and demonstrated the parallels between the everyday rites and rituals of these cultures and “role-playing” evidenced in theatrical performances.
Other related theories:
Role conflict is universal, and we all have experienced it in some form at some point of time in our lives. For most of us in fact, everyday life is a constant negotiating with and balancing between various roles we are expected to perform everyday in society.
The concept of the “role” in sociology is more complex and nuanced than its literal meaning, implying the very construction of our self through various acts of performance that we learn through interacting with other people.
Since we put on different performances for different situations, it is inevitable that role conflict should arise.
Byrne, J.A. (September, 2013) The MBA Mommy track: The true cost of having a baby Poets & Quants https://poetsandquants.com/2013/09/18/the-mba-mommy-track-how-life-choices-impact-income-career/
Devilbiss, M. C., & Perrucci, C. C. (1982). Effects of role multiplicity on U.S. Army Personnel. Journal of Political & Military Sociology, 10(1), 1–13. http://www.jstor.org/stable/45293298
Getzels, J. W., & Guba, E. G. (1954). Role, role conflict, and effectiveness: An empirical study. American Sociological Review, 19(2), 164–175. https://doi.org/10.2307/2088398
Hepburn, J. R., & Albonetti, C. (1980). Role conflict in correctional institutions: An empirical examination of the treatment-custody dilemma among correctional staff Criminology. 17 (4), 445–460. doi:10.1111/j.1745-9125.1980.tb01308.x.
Khandekar, O. (February, 2021) Indian Americans: Liberal in the US, conservative in India. Mint https://lifestyle.livemint.com/news/talking-point/indian-americans-liberal-in-the-us-conservative-at-home-111613026139289.html
Laurence, J. (2013). Islam and Social Democrats: Integrating Europe’s Muslim minorities. Dissent Magazine.
O’Neill, J.M. (2015) Men’s gender role conflict: Psychological costs, consequences, and an agenda for change APA Books.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.