Social roles are sets of social behaviors assigned to people based upon social status.
For example, a person whose social status of ‘parent’ may have a set of social roles that include providing care, providing shelter, and providing love. Conversely, a student’s social roles might be to study, learn, and attend class.
Below are a range of social statuses and the typical roles they are assigned in society.
Social Roles Examples
Roles: Organize, set rules, exercise authority
Every organized community has leaders. A leader occupies an important social role.
In larger communities, they are usually experienced community members and experts in important topics who have strong leadership skills. Leaders are necessary to help ensure there is a clear social hierarchy and chain of decision-making.
Sometimes, a community is organized into a hierarchy with just one leader (such as a president or prime minister), and sometimes it’s a group of leaders (such as a board of CEOs).
But, even in friendship groups, a leader often emerges. In these situations, the leader is the friend who is most confident, charismatic, assertive, or beloved, so people tend to follow their lead.
Roles: Listen, observe, follow, learn
If there are social leaders, there also need to be social followers. Followers may not be as essential in society as leaders, but they do occupy important roles nonetheless.
For example, every leader needs a group of followers who will provide them with social authority. They consent to the leader’s authority, follow their lead, and even do tasks assigned to them by the leader.
For example, a political party needs the head of the party as well as the followers who believe in their ideology and will organize, rally, and vote for the leader.
Roles: Provide care, provide food, provide shelter
Being a parents is of course one of the most important of social roles. As the cliche goes, the family is the heart of society.
Parents serve the role of being the first teachers for children. They pass on morals, values, and traditions to the next generation so culture can carry on across generations.
While traditionally we saw the role of the father and mother as fixed roles with clear stereotypical tasks (the father works, the mother raises the baby), today our ideas of the role of mother and father are more flexible. Similarly, we may see a parenting couple involving two mothers or two fathers.
Roles: Study, Attend class, Learn
Most readers of this website are students. This is your social role: you’re expected to study hard, attend courses, and show deference to your professors.
In some societies, this role is valued and protected. For example, growing up in Australia, I was given a monthly payment from the government so I could study without having to work.
This shows how society believed in the importance of this role. Students are needed because they become the doctors, lawyers, and working professionals that keep society running for the next 40 years!
Roles: Obey your parent, Follow the rules, Learn
The role of son or daughter is the complimentary role to the parenting role outlined above.
Children have a protected status in society and are expected to interact with society in unique ways.
For example, children are not allowed to work and are expected to go to school. They’re also expected to respect and love their parents.
Roles: Respect your spouse, Care for your spouse, Collaborate with your spouse
A spouse is expected to be a partner and support for their chosen husband, wife, girlfriend, boyfriend, or partner.
This role is respected and has its own special status as well. For example, often the only person who is allowed to visit a sick person in hospital is a spouse. A spouse may also be allowed to sign for packages or sign legal documents on behalf of their significant other.
Some societies even give tax breaks for couples, such as allowing them to split their income on their income tax returns.
Roles: Care for grandchildren, Tell stories, Provide wisdom
Grandparents are loved for their wisdom and the hard work they have put into growing a family over time.
They may take on special tasks such as babysitting or providing advice to the parents. In some societies, they even live with their children and grandchildren in a multigenerational household so they can be an extra support for thier families.
8. Church Member
Status: Church Member
Roles: Attend church, Learn from priest, Follow religious doctrine
If you are a religious person, you may have a special role as a chuch member. You attend church regularly and have a social network through it.
In some churches, your roles may even be subdivided depending on how you support the church. When I grew up, I attended Catholic church, where there were altar boys and volunteers who did the first reading from the bible each week.
Roles: Follow volunteer coordinator, Provide social value
A volunteer is a person who puts their hand up to help out society without expecting remuneration.
In many ways, volunteers are necessary for society to function. Especially in times of disaster, a volunteer takes on an extremely important role in helping the needy.
While they don’t get remuneration, volunteers may get support. For example, the government might give a volunteer firefighter a helmet, or the local coffee shop might give the volunteer free coffee as thanks for their efforts.
Roles: Provide company, Be supportive
In good times, the role of a friend is easy. It’s to have fun with their friends, spend time with them, and make memories.
Friends are there to enjoy the journey of life together.
But in bad times, their role to be by the side of the people they care about and look after them. You know who a good friend is when times are tough.
Society doesn’t really recognize friends in any official sense like many other social roles in this list, but they’re highly valued on an individual level.
11. Elected Official
Roles: Make laws, Listen to constituents, Argue for constituents’ needs
An elected official holds the extremely important role of representing their community when it comes to making decisions about how society functions.
In western democracies, all communities have representatives who go to parliaments to pass laws on behalf of the community. If you live in a conservative community, your representative is likely to reflect those values and vote accordingly. The same goes for liberal communities.
You may also have several elected officials directly representing you, such as your governor, local representative, and senator.
Roles: Serve food, Clean, Take money
Your job usually serves a social role as well. For example, the server at the restaurant has a role and follows a script about how to interact with you based on that role.
For example, the server knows when to approach the table, uses phrases we are all familiar with like “may I take your order?” and “how is everything?”
All of these little actions, phrases, and behaviors fit what we call the expected role performance of a person in the role of a server.
Roles: Educate, Classroom management, Provide safe environment, Listen to Parents
Teachers serve the role of passing on knowledge and skills to the next generation.
Interestingly, the role of teacher has changed a lot over time. For instance, in the early 1900s, most teachers were males. Today, most are females.
Similarly, what they’re expeceted to do has changed. Whereas once the whole focus was passing on information, today, teachers are expected to teach how to think well or critically rather than just passing on information.
Roles: Provide advice, Provide emergency care, Diagnose
Doctors are some of the most important members of society. They’re highly educated on matters relating to health and even keep us alive!
A society without doctors would lead to lower quality of life and lower life expectance. As a result, doctors hold a very special position.
Because of their special status, doctors often get paid very well and are respected by people in their community.
15. Authority Figure/Police Officer
Status: Authority figure
Roles: Make ethical decisions, Enforce or follow laws, Provide emergency care
Many people hold the role of ‘authority figure’. Police, for example, are seen as authority figures in public spaces.
As a result, they have special powers not given to anyone ese – like being able to arrest people or part anywhere they want!
In other situations, someone else might take the role of authority figure. In the workplace, it’s the boss. At home, it might be mom or dad.
Roles: Provide wisdom, Pass on knowledge
Elders are important people in our societies. In fact, some ancient societies hold them to the highest regard. They are the knowledge holders.
For example, in Aboriginal Australian society, elders are so highly respected that they are the leaders of communities. They represent their community to the colonial government and traditionally passed judgement when people contravened the laws of the community.
Roles: Interpret laws, Make judgments, Remain impartial
A judge holds a position in society that needs to be taken very seriously – both by the judge and society.
Judges determine if people are punished or no, and need to interpret the law. As a result, they need to be able objective and respectful of the law.
Usually, you only become a judge if you’re a highly resected member of society who has earned the position because you’ve demonstrated wisdom and temperance.
Roles: Question laws, Advocate for change
Even people outside of the mainstream of society have special roles. Dissidents, for example, are often necessary for holding power to account.
One example of someone with an extremely important social role is Alexi Navalny. He was a dissident who spoke out against the slide of Russia toward dicatorship.
Sadly, he was persecuted for his actions.
Nevertheless, Navalny is a hugely important figure because he highlights problems in society and advocated for improvement. These figures (e.g. Nelson Mandela) often end up being highly respected in retrospect.
19. Rebel/Countercultural Figure
Roles: Question authority, Create cultural trends
Like a dissident, a countercultural figure is often pushed out of the mainstream of society. Nevertheless, they serve an important role.
Countercultural figures often even end up being the ‘culture producers’. For example, Hip Hip artists in the late 1980s were out of the mainstream, but their new form of music and clothing became so popular that they influence mainstream fashion and music choices.
Roles: Record history, Interpret history, Deduce lessons from history
Historians serve the extremely important role of documenting the past so we can learn from it.
They write books about the past as well as making documentation about the present.
Furthermore, historians teach us lessons about the past. They will often talk about what’s happening right now in the context of past events that were similar or hold important messages about how we should react to situations taking place today.
Roles: Record current events, Interpret current events, Write opinion pieces
Like historians, journalists are record keepers. But journalists often break news stories and investigate current events that are of relevance to their audiences.
Journalists can be very powerful members of society. In fact, sometimes they’re so good at exposing the truth and holding the powerful to account that they end up getting falsely arrested and imprisoned!
Roles: Support, Care, Advocacy
An ally is a person who stands by people who are persecuted or oppressed. Their important social role is to support those in need.
For example, the group PFLAG is an ally of the LGBT community. Its job is to advocate for and support their friends who have historically been discriminated against.
Without allies, social justice is very difficult. So, allies can be the important people magnifying the voices of those in need and advocating on their behalf.
23. Musician/Artist/Culture Producer
Roles: Produce Art, Contribute to culture, Entertain
While officials and middle-aged adults might not think of musicians and artists as having an important role in society, young people certainly do.
If you ask your child who Mr Beast or Mark Rober are, they’d certainly know (by the way, they’re famous YouTubers).
This is because musicians and artists are hugely important to youths. They’re the culture producers. So, they have a hugely important role in influencing the up and coming generations.
24. Comedian/Court Jester
Roles: Entertain, Tell stories, Make us think
Every society – from the middle ages to today – has influential comedians. Remarkably, they also have important social roles.
Back in the middle ages, court jesters were able to make jokes about the king without being hung. They had a very special role of speaking truth to power.
Today, we see comedians and shows like Saturday Night Live as the modern-day court jesters who parody our society and hold a mirror up to our face. Their existence in our society is very important because it challenges us and makes us self-reflect.
Roles: Follow rules, Complete assigned tasks, Respect the workplace
Have you ever looked at a person collecting the garbage or cleaning the bathrooms and felt super grateful that there is someone in the world to do that task?
I’m always reflecting on how valuable all the little people are who do the hard work to keep society running.
Every employer has a role in society. They keep the cogs turning. They make sure food gets to our table, the businesses operate, and the government functions. Every employer has a social role.
Roles: Identify unmet needs in market, Get product to market, Generate profit
Employers also serve a special role in society. Without them, we wouldn’t have jobs!
Some employers become very important members of our communities. They donate to local sports groups, employ high school kids in their first jobs, and ensure we get the products and services we want!
There’s often a conflict in the roles of employers, who create the jobs, and employees, who don’t want to be exploited. These conflicts are often managed through unions and employment regulations.
Roles: Protest, Advocate for change, Question authority figures
Protesters serve one of the most important, albeit often annoying, roles in society. They encourage us to be better.
For example, the civil rights protesters were instrumental in changing the United States for the better. Nevertheless, instrumental figures like Martin Luthur King Jr. were shunned and seen as deviant figures.
As time has passed, we have come to see these people extremely influential figures who took upon social roles that shaped the nation.
- Role – A behavior connected to a social status.
- Role Set – A group of roles that all become associated with one status. For example, in the 1950s a woman’s role set included being passive, caregiver, and house cleaner.
- Role Perception – Expectations for a certain set of behaviors based on a social status.
- Role Performance – The acting-out of a role that is consistent with the person’s status.
- Sick Role – The role someone is expected by society to play when they are unwell.
There are countless roles in society. Most social statuses have a certain role set that they are expected to follow. Sometimes, if we don’t follow our assigned roles set (which are often mere stereotypes), we may be ridiculed or challenged.
Social roles can help society to function. However, they may also cause problems if the roles expected of social actors restrict people and lead to discrimination.
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.