Role Strain in Sociology: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:00 Role Strain Definition
  • 1:20 Examples of Role Strain
  • 4:10 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine has an M.A. in American Studies, the study of American history/society/culture. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer.

In this lesson, we will look at examples of people facing challenges in meeting the expectations placed on them. You will relate this to your own experience and the roles you play in your own life.

Role Strain Definition

Role strain occurs when a person has difficulty meeting the responsibilities of a particular role in his or her life. If you're reading this right now at a time when you are having trouble keeping up with the expectations on you as a student, learning all you need to learn, keeping on top of the work involved, this means you are experiencing strain on your role as a student.

A role is the term used by sociologists, and often in society in general, to describe a set of expected behaviors and obligations a person has based on their particular place in the world. We all have multiple roles and responsibilities in our lives.

At times, this may mean one role is in conflict with another. This is known as role conflict. For example, if you are both a student and you are employed, and your supervisor at work insists that you work late, this could interfere with your ability to study for an exam the next day. In this case, your role as a student and your role as an employee are in conflict with one another. You may feel that it is challenging to meet the demands of both well.

Role strain and role conflict describe different phenomena. Strain is experienced within one particular role, such as being a student, while conflict occurs between two different roles, such as being a student and an employee.

Examples of Role Strain

Imagine you are an actor on a stage and everyone is watching as you play out your lines and follow the stage directions for your part. Sociologist Erving Goffman suggested that there is a parallel between the way an actor plays on a stage and how we play our part in the world based on the roles we have. We present ourselves in different ways to different people. These patterns of actions and behaviors are known as role performance.

Now, imagine you are an American actor that has to provide a performance that involves a British accent. The bad news: you are terrible at faking a British accent! Your role requires that you perform this part, but you are likely to do poorly and experience negative feedback. You cannot meet the demands of your role unless you improve this skill.

If perhaps you think your British accent is excellent and have been told so in the past, what happens when your director critiques you? In this case, you might disagree with the director's criticism of the way you express your role.

If within your role as an actor, you have to switch from a British accent to an American accent, perhaps you find it hard to adjust to going back and forth. In this case, it is hard to meet all the expectations of this one role.

All of these are examples of role strain because you are unable to meet the demands of the role well, even in areas where you might have expected to succeed. What about in day-to-day life where you are an actor in the real world? Think of any role that a person could have, such as parent, sibling, sports fan, clergy, small business owner, Facebook friend, coworker, blogger, or any other part you might play in any level of society, including on the Internet. Any of these roles could experience strain.

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