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Social Role Theory and Role Strain in Parenthood

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Social Role Theory and Role Strain in Parenthood

Rita Bisaro

Lewis Clark State College

Social Role Theory and Role Strain in Parenthood

Key Components

One of the many theories in history is social role theory suggested by both Orville Brim and Talcott Parsons (Newman and Newman, 2012). Both sociologists believed socialization and personality development was the result of participation (Newman and Newman, 2012) in social roles they had in life, and they defined those roles as behaviors that had a socially agreed upon function and accepted code of norms. One could say that behavior was influenced by social positions. Brim and Parsons idea of social of roles came from theatre, and they purported that individuals in society occupied similar social positions in life (Newman and Newman, 2012). People's performance in these social roles or positions is determined by demands, rules, and the reactions of others in response to their roles.

According to Brim and Parsons, social role theory has three elements (Newman and Newman, 2012) of concern that apply to social life. These include social roles, role enactment, and role expectations (Newman and Newman). Social roles are the roles we play in life such as employee, mother, or child. We may have many different roles in our lives, and, as we get older or our situations change, we may take on more. For example, when a married woman has a child, she then has the role of both wife and caretaker. If she later joins the workforce, she assumes the role of worker in addition to the roles she already has. She then acts or has a part in the play of worker, mother, and wife. The second element of social role is role enactment, which is the behavior that serves as the outcome of the role (Newman and Newman). With enactment being the conduct of the person's role, the last element is role expectation which is the performance of the actor's role. The actor must know or learn his or her obligations and duties. For example sixteen year old with a new driver's license has the role of driver and the responsibilities that come with it. As people enter into and modify each of their roles, they modify their behavior to conform to the expectations, and each role is linked to several reciprocal roles (Newman and Newman, 2012). For example, a parent and a child, a bully and a victim, or a doctor and a patient reciprocal roles. Each role is partly defined by the roles that support it and the function of the role by its surrounding role groups (Newman and Newman, 2012).

Almost everyone balances multiple commitments to a spouse, children, job, parents, and friends (Newman and Newman, 2012). Once a person has decided on a position or positions in life, the demands of their roles may cause further restraints. This could result in role overload, role conflict, or role spillover (Newman and Newman, 2001). When the actor's part has too many demands and there is not enough time allowed to meet them, it is known as overload. For example, employees may have to take on the extra work and meet the same deadline of an employee who left the company creating overload for everyone. When we find ourselves pulled in too many directions from the roles we play in life (expectations), it may create role conflict. It can also happen when we go from one role to many or are forced to make choices between them. Sometimes we have to compromise with our roles and it creates conflict because it doesn't satisfy either one. For example, similar to conflict is spillover, which happens when one role prevents us from carrying out the demands of another role (Newman and Newman, 2012).


Role strain is similar to role conflict and is often defined as difficulty meeting roles or balancing competing role demands (Newman and Newman, 2012). Many of today's single parents or working parents experience role strain. According to Scharlach (2001), todays employees are faced with greater work and family responsibilities than ever before. With most parents in the paid workforce, having children under the age of six difficulties can be experienced by working these parents as they attempt to balance competing demands of employment and childrearing (Scharlach, 2001). Additionally, more than 70% of working parents expressed stress as a result of conflict between their work and family roles (Scharlach, 200). Role strain happens when it is too hard to cope with work and family demands because of lack of resources. Schedules and hours often fall into work related variables while division of household labor and time spent in caregiving fall into family variables (Lee, Vernon-Feagans, Vazquez, and Kolak, 2003). Research has shown that role strain is more likely to affect women in dual-earner families as women often shoulder more of the responsibilities of both the home and the family. Furthermore, this unequal division of labor increases the risk of spillover from one role to the other for women (Lee et al., 2003). Researchers interested in the roles of family have begun to look at the effects of parental role strain on child functioning. According to Lee et al. (2003), families with lower role conflict and more emotional expressiveness and organization have been found to function better.

One of the major factors affecting the structure of family in recent years has been the increase in single parenting families, 90% of which are headed by women (Burden, 2001). In spite of increased employment opportunities for women, one issue still facing single mothers and their children today is poverty. Single females who balance the role of caregiver and worker experience a great deal of emotional difficulty (strain) as they only have themselves to rely on for a source of income. Single women who are parents often maintain their performance both at work and home at the expense of their physical and emotional well-being (Burden, 2001).

Two Strengths and Weaknesses

One strength of role theory is the idea that individuals take on roles as they move from one life stage to another. In a sense, if they are expected to fill certain roles in life, they will. For example, as a child reaches the age related to high school, they will take on the roles related to high school student and demonstrate relevant skills (Newman and Newman, 2012). Doing his homework on time, passing his courses, and maybe electing to participate in a sport or school club shows he understands his role. It can also happen in teams, organizations, and societies, if the company is using role theory to help employees succeed in a positive way. The power of role theory is recognizable



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