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Role Set in Sociology: Definition & Analysis

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  • 0:01 What Is Role Set?
  • 2:15 Merton's Analysis
  • 6:57 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

This lesson explores the concept of role set. Learn about a sociologist's analysis on how we survive with so many complicated relationships in our lives.

What Is Role Set?

Role set is the term used to describe the variety of roles and relationships you have as a result of your status in society. For instance, a high school student interacts with a variety of different people as he goes through the school year, including teachers, guidance counselors, the principal and administration, and his peers. His role set includes the different behaviors, or roles, he uses to meet the demands of this one social status of 'student.'

Everyone has a status set, or a combination of many social statuses. Social statuses include our gender, occupation, ethnic group, volunteer associations, and hobbies. We can either choose to associate ourselves with a status (an achieved status), such as an occupation, or we are born into one (an ascribed status), such as our ethnicity. So one person may have a status set that includes being a woman, a sales professional, a mother, a daughter, a sister, a person with a Latina heritage, and a volunteer tutor.

Roles are the way that statuses get expressed. For instance, a person whose status in society is 'high school student' will behave in particular ways. This behavior is the 'role' the student is playing. Likewise, a 'sales professional' will behave in a certain way, and a 'volunteer tutor' in still another way. Each social status can be expressed through the roles we act out.

In 1957, American sociologist Robert K. Merton made the term 'role set' the topic of an article he wrote for the British Journal of Sociology. Merton was specifically interested in the variety of ever-changing roles a person plays when expressing a single social status. For instance, when a lawyer is involved in lawyer-related activities, she changes her behavior depending on the other person or people in the interaction. When talking with a judge, a lawyer will have one set of behaviors, compared with the role she has when she is talking with a client she is representing. Her status as 'lawyer' includes more than one role. By describing this concept in a way others had not before, Merton opened the door for sociologists to look at the idea of roles more closely and have conversations about its importance.

Merton's Analysis

Think about just one social status that applies to you now or in the past. For instance, this could be the job you do, or your status as a student. Now think of the different people you interact with while you are playing out the related roles of this status. For instance, for your occupation, you may interact with your manager, your customers, other businesses, your coworkers, your human resources department, and others. Now think about each of the people you interact with, and consider that they all have a complex set of roles they play in society as well, through their own social statuses, such as occupation. Now imagine a whole country, or even the whole world filled with individuals acting out their roles with one another. Society starts to look pretty complicated.

Sociologists, such as Merton, are interested in how society functions and maintains itself with such complicated interactions happening every day. Why don't we come apart at the seams? What holds things together and ensures that we don't constantly wake up in the morning overwhelmed by the sheer complexity of so many people interacting with one another in their different role sets?

After defining role set as a concept, Merton's next step was to discuss the social mechanisms of role sets that help answer the question of how society functions. Social mechanisms are the ways that people, activities, and other building blocks of society interact. Social mechanisms include particular ways that people relate to one another, the tendencies we notice about our society, and the sequence in which things typically take place. He looked at social mechanisms as a way of better understanding the glue that holds society together.

Merton pointed out that one social mechanism that comes into play to hold society together is that some of the statuses we have may be more scrutinized than others. If all of our statuses were under a microscope and were equally important all of the time, it would be very difficult for us to act out our role set. Thankfully, not all statuses are equally important. Their importance is relative, with some more important and some less important. The part-time volunteer work a person does on the weekends, for instance, does not demand the same attention as a full-time job. You can prioritize the more important status as appropriate which helps simplify things for you and for society.

He also noticed that the people within our role set have different levels of power. If all of the people in our role set had equal power and differing opinions, we would be stuck, unable to make a decision. Instead, because they have different levels of power, we can weigh the concerns of the people of importance in our role set and then make a decision of our own.

Another social mechanism he identified is the privacy we have in our relations with those in our role set. For instance, if you are a lawyer, your client does not know all of the demands on your time. You are not under surveillance, being watched by those in your role set. This gives you freedom to advocate for what you need without others having full knowledge of your situation. Like the other mechanisms listed so far, this privacy helps simplify things more than if we could all see into one another's business all of the time.

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