role/roles. Socially defined positions and patterns of behaviour, which are characterized by specific sets of rules, norms and expectations which serve to orientate and regulate the interaction, conduct and practices of individuals in social situations. We often think of roles in the theatrical or dramatic sense, as referring to those parts played or performed by actors or actresses in a play or drama. In the study of social and cultural relations, roles, by extension of this theatrical idea, refer to all the different 'parts' that may be 'played' by individuals (actors and actresses) as they interact (perform) in different contexts (scenes and acts) within a particular society (the overall drama, play or theatre). Both on and off stage, individuals occupying certain positions or roles within society are expected to 'act' and behave in certain predictable ways, to follow and conform to certain rules and norms that seem to exist independently of the particular individuals involved. We are socialized into these sets of expectations, often taking for granted the ways in which they define and classify the social world into seemingly endless and obvious relations between men, women, bakers, brothers, politicians, friends, and soon. The central point here is that roles always exist in relation to other roles: the occupational role of doctor, for example, implies and relates to the roles of patient, nurse and consultant, different roles which carry different expectations and degrees of power and status.

Like actors, people play many different and changing roles throughout life, and at any one point in time are involved in a multiplicity of different roles and role relations. As a student, for example, you may also be female, a friend, a union member, a cousin, sometimes a guest, a car driver, a customer, and so on. Not all of these roles can be played at the same time - significantly they may sometimes contradict, leading to 'role conflict' - and neither are they all equal or identical. Anthropological studies of roles and 'role systems' in different cultures, for example, have distinguished between roles that are socially ascribed to individuals at birth, or by virtue of age or kinship position, and roles that are socially achieved with access dependent upon individual performance, competition and qualification (Linton 1963).

While the term is commonly used in discussions and descriptions of social interaction and communication, its analytical value and explanatory power have been questioned. Too often it assumes a static, consensual, over-determining and over-simplified view of social relations, thereby neglecting both individuals and structures of power and inequality.