Descriptive Essay. Social Roles. Part 2


In the previous part of the article, we gave some information about the topic under consideration. You already have a certain idea about it and now we continue to explore it.

The skill of demonstrating a role distance is a thing as much valued by society as the skill of playing a part.

Roles vary in how much they absorb their performer. One of the most important discoveries of social psychology is that the roles we are playing at the moment determine to a very large extent how we see this situation, what we feel about it, and what norms we are currently guided by. From the description of the role set and role distance, one might think that most people approach this role set quite reflexively in most situations. They think that they have a role to play, they know that others know that they play this very role, that they can joke and make fun of it. And sometimes, even quite often, it is true, but in basic situations, oddly enough, it is probably not at all the case.

Social Experiments

A significant part of modern drama and a huge amount of socio-psychological literature is devoted to the fact that, despite such an obvious conventionality of roles and the fact that the word "role", taken from the theater, is firmly embedded in our everyday language, as a rule, we do not at all look at these roles as conditional things.

Two classic confirmations of this point of view are Milgram’s and Zimbardo's socio-psychological experiments demonstrating how people who have a completely conditional role to play in everyday situations begin to act in accordance with role prescriptions even if they find their actions in this role terrible, disgusting and completely unacceptable before and after. Both of them experimented with students-psychologists – one of the most liberal groups of young people which in general can probably be found in an American society.

Zimbardo forced these students to behave like prison guards and prisoners. This story is known as the Stanford experiment and you could definitely have heard about it. There were three types of guards: cruel, but fair following the compiled code of rules; "good guys," who rendered small services to prisoners and never punished them; sadists mocking prisoners for their own pleasure.

After the prisoners were told that all applications for an early parole had been rejected, half of them had nervous breakdowns, and the one had a psychosomatic rash. Some of them rebelled and fought with guards, while others, on the contrary, decided to play the role of "good prisoners", implicitly fulfilling all the whims of jailers.

By the end of the study, students, each of whom had been a unique personality, became a group of impersonal and frightened people, somewhat resembling the patients of a psychiatric hospital.

The guards established total control over their wards, achieving blind obedience to any orders.

It should be said that former members of the Stanford experiment are still ambiguous about Zimbardo's contribution to the development of social psychology. However, despite this, the events taking place in August 1971 forever entered into its history.

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Milgram's experiment was aimed at revealing the hidden sadistic traits in the part of the student population. Students were asked to play the role of the experimenter's assistant. They had to give an electric shock to a student sitting in the next room if they gave the wrong answer. Milgram was interested in how many people would reach significant degrees.

There were "strong pain", "very strong pain", and "unbearable pain" in the switch, and the last one was marked with three crosses. He had initial hypotheses about how many people would get to strong pain – less than half, very strong pain – even less, and finally, the three percent that was needed was latent clinical sadists who could reach the very end. Significantly more than half came to the end. At the same time, students demonstrated suffering, they wrung their hands and expressed their dissatisfaction with what was happening, but the role of the experimenter's assistant acting on behalf of science was stronger than all their senses they could experience in this regard.

Both experiments showed that at the time of the experiment, students felt obliged to play the role they had in this situation, despite the fact that when they played a different role, before and after, they considered this role completely unacceptable.

This was a strong confirmation of the thesis that in everyday life, we play the roles that we have to play now. However, roles can be redistributed according to your desire. For example, you can entrust writing a paper to a professional writer and gain the freedom of action for a certain period. It is a small thing, but it feels good.


Somewhere at the very beginning, there were works of an American social psychologist named George Herbert Mead, who argued that through learning the roles we learn to look at ourselves through the eyes of another person. A small child first plays with another small child, and they play fixed roles of adults. Thus, a child learns to play the role of daughter or son, and some other child learns to play the role of mother or father. Then they begin to play team games like football, and instead of playing the role of a specific other and orienting themselves to the performer of this role, each of them focuses on some abstract collective. But this is only a preparation for real adulthood.

Adulthood is when society as a whole becomes generalized for us.

We look at ourselves through the eyes of this society and the highest moral authority, and due to this, because we look at ourselves through the eyes of society in general, we can resist the influence of our environment.

Experiments of Milgram and Zimbardo or Goffman's works on social psychology of everyday interaction show us that is a rather pessimistic view of human nature. We are still much more dependent on our immediate surroundings, on the role that they give us immediately before the performance than on any abstract ideas about the quality of the play, on the admissibility of this role. This truth was, perhaps, one of the main discoveries in social psychology in the twentieth century.

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