The concept of a “role” has been rode hard by social scientists. From allusions to its source (e.g., “Did you know, the concept actually comes from the roll of paper where the actor’s lines were written”) to debates over its meaning (e.g., , “Did you know that roles, statuses, and positions are as different from each other as night and day?”) and it’s casual use by consultants to create insight into how the best teams can be created (e.g., Did you know you need make sure every group has at least one “opinion giver,” one “nurse/do-gooder,” and one “devil’s advocate”?), its hardly any wonder that serious researchers sometimes roll their eyes when the concept is offered as an explanation for an interesting social phenomenon.
But roles, as a basic concept, offer an explanation for two of the most fascinating facts about people in groups.
First, when people join a group, they sometimes seem to leave their personalities and individual proclivities behind. The quiet recluse, taciturn by nature, may become quite convivial when given responsibility for organizing the group’s annual fund raising event. The otherwise mild mannered colleague may become habitually critical of process when taking part in group discussions. The staffer with the messiest office may become methodical and precise when elected the group’s secretary. Sometimes (not always, of course), there is a discontinuity between who the person is, when alone, and who that person becomes when in a group: an individual discontinuity effect (paying, of course, homage to Chet Inkso).
Second, many groups operating in a range of different circumstances–children at play, executives debating a course of action, a jury rendering a decision about guilt, a sports team huddling before a play–exhibit certain dissimilarities in the types of behaviors members display. Much has been said about the pronounced capacity for individuals to conform to others’ behavior, and certainly Asch and others have demonstrated that yes: people will make certain that their opinions match those of others in the group. But, in organized, long-term groups, people do NOT act similarly to one another. They, in fact, differentiate themselves from others in the group by displaying certain behaviors consistently–behaviors that others in the group do not enact. Over time, someone will be the person who seems bored by the group. Someone will consistently keep the group on course. Someone will be the harmonizer who intervenes to soothe the group’s feelings. In current slang, everyone in the group becomes “that guy”: the person who can be expected to enact some specific type of response. Or, as Romans 12:4 explains, “For as we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same purpose”.
The concept of a role explains both of these tendencies. A role requires certain behavior, and when the individual adopts the role–or is forced into it–he or she must enact the required behaviors or suffer rejection by the group. This role enactment requirement causes the individual discontinuity effect–the display of behaviors in the group that are not in keeping with individualistic proclivities. A role exists, in the first place, because the group (a) requires the actions performed by the role holder to function; (b) the requirements are shared/distributed among members, because no one person can fulfill them all; and (c) these functions are so essential that group must be reasonably certain that someone will perform them. Because of the continuities in the demands that groups face across situations–the need for coordination, for communication, for influence, for unity, for stability, for conflict management–certain roles are common across groups: hence, continuities in roles emerge.