You learned previously how we each hold many different statuses, and that these statuses lead us to fulfil many different roles. Sometimes, this can be a lot! Sociologists have identified a few specific ways in which an individual role might become overwhelming, or in which a person’s overlapping or contradicting statuses might cause conflict. If too much is required of a single role, individuals can experience role strain. Consider the duties of a parent: cooking, cleaning, driving, problem-solving, acting as a source of moral guidance—the list goes on. Similarly, a person can experience role conflict when one or more roles are contradictory. A parent who also has a full-time career can experience role conflict on a daily basis. When there is a deadline at the office and a sick child needs to be picked up from school, that’s role conflict. When you are traveling for work but your children want you to come to their school play, which do you choose? Being a college student can conflict with being an employee, being an athlete, or even being a friend. Our roles in life powerfully affect our decisions and help to shape our identities.
You may say to yourself, “Mom, I don't have time to deal with this right now,” because you don't have time to perform the roles of a son or daughter at that moment. In fact, you may even tell your mother that you won’t be able to talk to her until the weekend. In this manner, you separate everything to avoid feeling role conflict, a familiar feeling most people experience weekly.
Similarly, you can experience stress from one single status. This is called role strain, which is stress and tension that result from roles of a single status, like your job. That's often a very stressful status because the roles demand a lot of you.
Not all roles are permanent or lifelong. There are many times that a role might end, whether by choice or by circumstance. Role exit is when you go through a transition in life, or you leave something behind and start something new. It encompasses transitions that cause you to disengage from old roles and engage with something new. Anytime a person becomes an "ex" in life is an example of a role exit:
How do our roles and statuses help us understand ourselves, and to have a sense of who we are at all?
Charles Horton Cooley introduced the concept of the looking-glass self to describe how a person’s sense of self grows out of interactions with others. “Looking-glass” is an archaic term for a mirror, so Cooley theorized that we “see” ourselves when we interact with others. Cooley proposed a threefold process for this development: 1) we see how others react to us, 2) we interpret that reaction (typically as positive or negative), and 3) we develop a sense of self, based on those interpretations.
Of course, it is impossible to look inside a person’s head and study what role they are playing. All we can observe is outward behavior, or role performance. Role performance is how a person expresses his or her role. Sociologist Erving Goffman presented the idea that a person is like an actor on a stage. Goffman believed that we use impression management to present ourselves to others as we hope to be perceived. Each situation is a new scene, and individuals perform different roles depending on who is present. Think about the way you behave around your coworkers versus the way you behave around your grandparents or with a blind date. Even if you’re not consciously trying to alter your personality, your grandparents, coworkers, and date probably see different sides of you.
As in a play, the setting matters as well. If you have a group of friends over to your house for dinner, you are playing the role of a host. It is agreed that you will provide food and will choose the music and probably be stuck with a lot of the cleanup at the end of the night. Similarly, your friends are playing the roles of guests, and they are expected to respect your property and any rules you may set forth (“Don’t leave the door open or the cat will get out.”). In any scene, there needs to be a shared reality between players. In this case, if you view yourself as a guest and others view you as a host, there are likely to be problems.
Goffman’s dramaturgical approach expands on the ideas of Charles Cooley and the looking-glass self. We imagine how we must appear to others, then react to this speculation. We put on certain clothes, prepare our hair in a particular manner, wear makeup, use cologne, and the like—all with the notion that our presentation of ourselves is going to affect how others perceive us. We expect a certain reaction, and, if lucky, we get the one we desire and feel good about it. But more than that, Cooley believed that our sense of self is based upon this idea: we imagine how we look to others, draw conclusions based upon their reactions to us, and then we develop our personal sense of self. In other words, people’s reactions to us are like a mirror in which we are reflected.
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