A specification what a
person of a
certain social kind should do, say, and look like in specific circumstances.
More precisely, a role played by a
person in some society
involves usually the following:
- There is a
public of other persons that know the role (to some extent),
- there are conditional actions, with
conditions ci and acts qi such that a person who plays
the role must do qi if ci,
- there are (usually) goals gi
such that a person who plays the role must (seem to) further gi
in any case, and
- there are rewards and punishments
associated with the conditional actions and goals that are part of the role,
that are usually meeted out by members of the audience.
Most human acting in society is acting in some
role, acting out some part, that one has learned by learning its goals,
rewards and punishments, associated values, conditional behaviour, and required
All of human social life is founded on the playing of roles, which is a
kind of stage-playing mostly, in nearly all circumstances: Every human being,
even the most simple one, is so complicated that he or she on any given moment
can only act out and represent a small part of that the
person may and can do. What one shows of
what one is or would like to be is for the greatest part choice, and how
one shows it is a combination of game and
play, where 'game' refers to such sequences of playing that are bound
by rules that one must have learned to play that game, and 'play'
refers to spontaneous explorative activity, that is aimed at satisfaction of
some end (like enjoying oneself or others), and when done with others involves
cooperation and mutual consent.
Indeed, here lies a hidden and deep theme: The acting, stage-playing,
role-playing that is the fundament of being human:"No man is as much himself as when playing a part."
This social stage-playing, that is part and parcel of every social role, is
mostly necessary if only to prevent that the members of a group start
fighting. Thus, it is necessary - because of: politeness, social graces,
self-interest, social peace - to act as if, to play one's part, to keep up the
pretenses, and to maintain a front and play a role one may not feel like while
playing it, and that anyway only shows a fraction of what and how one is or
may be. (See Johan Huizinga's "Homo Ludens"; Ervin Goffman: "The presentation
of self in ordinary life"; and Eric Berne: "Games People Play",
for respectively a historian's, sociologist's and psychiater's perspective
on the subject of man the role-player.)
The subject is complicated, in part because the term 'role' has several
senses that tend to apply to most roles as they are played, and because there
is a lot of hypocrisy, delusion, pretense and
falseness involved in the playing of roles by humans.
To clarify this some: A real king plays a real social role, which includes
a lot of hypocrisy, acting as if, posing, posturing, lying and so on, all of
which is necessary to make a minimally realistic and succesful king. A real
actor who plays the part of a king on stage, plays a real role in a
stage-play, that again involves a lot of hypocrisy, acting as if, posing,
posturing and lying. The difference between the two kings - the real one and
the one on stage - is that roles for a real king and for a real actor
representing a real king differ, and require different skills.
Next, it is important to realize that in all human interaction play,
pretense and reality overlap simultaneously on several, perhaps many, levels,
apart from very extreme situations, and these are usually due to great pain,
misery, or anger. All the rest of human social behaviour is made up of many
layers of play and reality tht are mixed up and follow each others while roles
are being played, partially but not completely according to the
consciousness of the players that they
are more or less serious, committed, pretending, or honest. (See:
One important problem is that the roles and role-playing of that vast
majority of adult human beings is supposed by them to be precisely not
the playing of games, but what they really are,
and so the problems with the human playing of human roles in society are
(1) the dishonesties in much role-playing: People pretend
systematically that they are other than they think and feel, and do so from
fear and self-interest, because they believe that the role they play cannot
be played without their kind of lying.
(2) the belief in their own parts and pretenses: The vast majority of
adults beliefs that what they are to a large extent coincides with
their social position and role.
(3) the inability to stop playing the role one plays: The vast
majority of adults is not capable anymore to act spontaneously (without
drink or drugs), and adulthood has come for them with an identification with
some roles one plays, the personality
they pretend to themselves and others they are. One "is" a clerk, manager,
police-man, housewife and so on, and feels "in duty bound" thereby to feel,
think and act as (one believes that) a a clerk, manager, police-man,
housewife and so on feel, think and act - for after all, that is what one
"is" (one feels, and has been told).
Here lies also the fundamental difference between children and
adults: Children also play roles all the time - except that they still
know that they play, and have not yet identified themselves with a
social role (other than: a playing child).
Children can unproblematically and directly give up a role they
play and return to themselves; almost all adults are hardly capable of
giving up the social roles with which they identify themselves - and
which tend to be living lies composed from self-deception, even though
this also is normally mostly hidden to the adults.
Adults who drop out of their roles tend to do so socially and in
groups, for example in soccer-stadions, where tens of thousands of
average males anonymously try to scream out of their systems a
week of frustration and self-falsification, or else happens with
drinks or drugs on parties, where deviant behaviour and acting out
once more belong to the acceptable social game one plays there.
A warning may be in place for the naive reader:
There are people who enjoy pretending that they are "authentically"
"themselves". One may find such persons in the context of
therapeutical groups. Normally, this too is a pose, a pretense, and a
role - and it also tends to be a neurotic one, that is mostly used to
feel superior to others or to enable one to do as one pleases while
falsely pretending one is entitled to do so because one is so
"authentically oneself". The truth is that
whoever cannot act normally to and with normal people
most probably is disturbed. Also, the playing of roles, the keeping up
pretenses, and the common courtesies and niceties that belong to
playing a social part, and which one does not do because one feels like
doing it but to help each other, are part and parcel of being a social