One of my favorite theories in sociology is role theory because it explains so much of what we do and don’t do in everyday life. It even explains why students don’t have pizzas delivered in the middle of class.
A role is a set of expectations held by others about what we are supposed to do when we are in a given social position. For example, if you’re the secretary of a student organization, you may need to take notes during meetings, contact other members regarding events, and keep track of peoples’ dues. Likewise, if you work as a server at the local Mexican restaurant, you are expected to greet customers, take their orders, refill the chips and salsa, check in with them throughout the meal to see if they need anything, and collect their money. You do these things not because of who you are, but because these are the duties of the position. In sociological language, the expectations that you will do what you are supposed to do in a role are called norms.
Role expectations are not just behaviors but emotions and feelings as well. As a server, you greet customers with a corporate-imposed greeting such as: “Hi, I’m Taylor, and I’ll be taking care of you tonight.” (At this point, I usually ask them to go wash my car or something, but they never do…) The role of a server requires you to be cheerful an interested. Don’t really feel that way? Doesn’t matter: You need to do it anyway. Imagine in you greeted customers with an angry snarl or sat down and started telling them all your problems. If you weren’t fired right away, you would at least have a manager instructing you in how to “properly” treat customers.
Roles have remarkably detailed and complex expectations for our behavior. You could fill a thick instruction manual for all the roles we act out. Let’s take a simple situation—what students are supposed to do in a college classroom. Sounds easy, right? There are actually many, many rules that you’re supposed to follow, and if it seems easy, it’s only because you know them already.
In a classroom, you are supposed to:
· Walk into the room—not run, crawl, dance or do handsprings into it.
· Talk with other students quietly—not yell greetings to them as you might if you saw the same person in a different situation. “Hey, you &#@*!, how the &#($)@^ are you doing!” won’t cut it.
· Sit in your chair facing forward. Don’t stand; don’t sit in front, facing the class (this is reserved for the professor); don’t put your feet up on somebody else’s desk.
· Look like you’re paying attention. Even if you’re bored out of your mind and ready to collapse into a deep sleep, face the general direction of the professor and keep your eyes open. Don’t lay down on the floor, put your head on your backpack, and take a nap. (Hey, if I have to be awake for my classes, my students do too!).
· If you have to say something, you raise your hand until acknowledged by the professor. Don’t just yell out, “Hey you, I’ve got something to say.” There are even norms on how to raise your hand! Lift your hand shoulder height and keep it mostly still. Don’t wave both arms frantically.
Over the years, I’ve had various experiences in the classroom that have indicated the power of these norms. In one class I had a student with a learning disability who would often do the “wrong” thing in the classroom. He would ask questions that were off topic. He would sometimes interrupt me during lecture with his comments. He would get really enthusiastic when talking. These behaviors didn’t bother me (professors are usually pretty happy just to have someone participate in class), but the other students were scornful of his violating classroom norms. At first they would roll their eyes and maybe snicker, but after a few weeks they would laugh out loud at him. Not the “we’re having fun” laugh, but the “you’re an idiot” laugh. He could tell what was going on, and after a few weeks, he just dropped the class.
Last semester I taught an evening class in a large lecture hall that holds 330 students. Since it was a two-and-a-half hour class, the students got hungry and usually brought food with them. One evening, a student forgot, and so at the start of class he asked if he could order a pizza. I thought it was a great idea, so I said sure. Well, about 30 minutes later, I was halfway up the stairs on one side of the classroom (I walk around a lot when I teach), and the class burst in to laughter. I looked back, and there in the front of class was this student paying a very confused Domino’s delivery person.
According to role theory, most of us are hardcore, rabid conformists. Whether it’s answering a telephone or ordering a coffee or getting married or playing softball or walking down the street or sending an e-mail or just about anything else, we conform to role expectations. They guide much of our lives, both in and out of the classroom.