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 the 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 quiet 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.
Watching a group of people doing something–a committee deep in discussion of some trivial issues, a work crew on a job site hanging rock, a baseball team warming up between innings, or a gaggle of school kids streaming from the school bus stop onto the bus–one immediately senses these groups are structured in some way–that something unseen is holding them together, in some cases loosely and in others more tightly, and that if one knew more about the structure then the group’s actions, both now and in the future, would be more understandable.
But what does it mean to say something has a “structure?” And what does it mean to say a group has a structure?
1. The structure of a thing is the relatively fixed arrangement of and relations among the individual elements (parts). Structures tie together/join/coordinate/link discrete (singular) components in an integrated, meshed system of relationships. Structures regulate the members ( a member, after all, is a very general word. It literally means any one of the constituent elements of a structure, and so describes the timbers used in a building, the organs of the body, the parts in a mathematical equation) in a way that promotes coordinated action, eliminates or at least reduces disturbances in the mechanics of the operation system, and increases the systems’ durability and capacity.
2. A group’s structure defines its features, the functions of its constituent members, and the relationships among those members. Applied to a human group, the elements of 1. above suggest a group’s structure is the relatively fixed arrangement of and relations among the members. Group structures tie together members in an integrated network of relationships that facilitates coordination and regulates interdependencies, eliminates or at least reduces disturbances in the mechanics of the operation system, and increases the systems’ durability and capacity for dealing with tasks/issues that require a concerted (group-level) response.
3. One implication of the idea of “structures” is that members are depersonalized–like a stack of 2X4s to be used in building a wall, the shingles for a roof, or the planks that will be nailed side-by-side to build a floor. When a group is structured the individual members must have features that make them fit to their particular function in the overall design/architecture. When a group is structured it is modularized, and the individuals are the modules who can be replaced easily–in a highly structured groups any given member can be swapped in and out, for what matters is the result rather than who makes the result possible. As a group becomes structured the dependency on any specific, unique individual is diminished.
4. Structures mandate/require certain elements by their very design. A house, for example, requires a foundation, a roof, walls, and structural elements (bearing walls, beams). Similarly, if a group is structured, it will requires certain elements or features. These features are generally termed roles.
5. If structures link elements, some manner of creating that link must be identified and implemented to build the structure. For human groups, the group’s structure creates connections among the roles and those who occupy them, creating an integrated system of relationship based on affect (liking, disliking), respect (prestige, admiration), communication (sharing of information).
6. Structures create uniformity (similarity) across different groups. Consider, for example, houses. Aside from such novel designs, such as geodesic domes or modularized housing, most houses are of two varieties: stick and wall. With a stick house, the load of the elements of the house (the floors, roof, contents) is transferred through beams (horizontal elements) and columns (vertical elements) through to the ground (foundation). In bearing-wall type houses, the walls themselves carry the load to the foundation. Once one knows the house’s structure, one knows much about the nature of the house, including how many windows it can have in its outer walls, its flexibility in terms of renovation, and the reasons for its features. Similarly, if groups tend to have common structures–centralized, for example, or hierarchical–then much is known about the group.
7. Highly structured objects, such as houses, are actually called “structures.” In some cases social scientists who believe that society and its commonly viewed features–families, educational and educational systems, mechanisms of governance–are described as social structures as well. A group, then, does not just have a structure, it is a structure.
8. We have, as well, a few other words we can use in place of the word structure. We can speak of the “anatomy” of a group, or the group’s underlying “framework,”or even “scaffold.” Each of these terms supplies nuance to the analysis, but in some cases the analogy drags in meaning that we did not intend–and agreement on meaning is even lower than that of structure. For example, framework is a supporting structure of some type, but is relatively rudimentary. In many cases, too, the framework may be removed after the structure itself is completed. Anatomy, used by a physician, likely has the same meaning as a structure, but to many anatomy is a description of the parts of the body, with less focus on their integration into a functioning biological organism. Scaffolds, finally, provide access to portions of the structure, but they are external to it and are disassembled once the structure is stable and functioning.
9. Things that are part of a group’s structure are, in general, essential for the group’s existence. In a house, the decorative cornices “structures,” but in a weaker sense of the word. They can be removed, and the house would still function. Removing the foundation, however, or the bearing walls, or the corner columns, and the house would collapse (eventually). Structural elements are essential elements, for they reveal the basic nature of the group, rather than its aspects that add nuance to it or flesh it out.
9. A group’s structure defines the formation, arrangement, and articulation of the members of that group. The group’s formation is its overall “design” or “architecture,” meaning its general configuration for unifying the constituent elements into a single unit–the group’s basic shape. The group’s arrangement describes is the manner in which the members are linked/joined to one another–the group’s network. The groups’s articulation is the degree of integration of the elements into a single integrated whole–the group’s structural cohesiveness.