Role Conflict and Role Strain
Most people occupy a number of statuses. each of which has numerous role expectations attached. For example. Charles is a student who attends morning classes at the university. and he is an employee at a fast-food restaurant, where he works from 3;00 to 10;00 P.M. He is also Stephanie's boyfrtend, and she would like 10 see him more often. On December 7. Charles has a final exam at 7:00 i'.M., when he is supposed to be working. Meanwhile. Stephanie is pressuring him to take her to a movie. To top it off. his mother calls. asking him to fly home because hi. father is going to have emergency surgery. How can Charles be in all these places at once? Such experiences of role conflict can be overwhelming.
Role conflict occurs when incompatible role demands are placed on a person by two or more statuses held at the same lime. When role conflict occurs, we may fed pulled in different directions. To deal with this problem. we may prioritize our roles and first complete the one we consider to be most important, Or we may compartmentalize our lives and Nlnsulate"our various roles (Merton, 1968). That is, we may perform the activities linked to one role for part of the day and then engage in the activities associated with another role in some other time period or elsewhere. For example, under routine circumstances, Charles would fulfill his student role for part of the day and his employee role for another part of the day. In his current situation, however, he is unable to compartmentalize his roles. .
Role conflict may occur as a result of changing statuses and roles in society. Research has found that women who engage in behavior that is gender-typed as "masculine" tend to have higher rates of role con- Ilict than those who engage in traditional 'feminine" behavior (Basow; 1992). According to the sociologist Tracey Watson (1987), role conflict can sometimes be attributed not to the roles themselves but to the pressures people feel when they do not fit into culturally prescribed roles. In her study of women athletes in college sports programs. Watson found role conflict in the traditionally incongruent identities of being a woman and being an athlete. Even though the women athletes in her study wore makeup and presented a conventional image when they were not on the bas- ketball court. their peers in school still saw them as "female jocks;' thus leading to role conflict. Whereas role conflict occurs between two or more statuses (such as being homeless and being a temporary employee of a social services agency). role strain takes place within one status. Role strain occurs when incompatible demands are built into a single status that a person occupies (Goode. 1960). For example. many women experience role strain in the labor force because they hold jobs that are WIesssatisfying and more stressful than men's 'jobs since they involve less money. less prestige.
fewer job openings, more career roadblocks. and so forth- (Basow, 1992: 192). Similarly. married women may experience more role strain than married men because of work overload, marital inequality with their spouse. exclusive parenting responsibilities, unclear expectations and lack of emotional support. Recent social changes may have increased role strain in men. In the family. men's traditional position of dominance has eroded as more women have entered the paid labor force and demanded more assistance in child-rearing and homemaking responsibilities. Role strain may occur .among African American men who have internalized North American cultural norms
regarding masculinity yet find it very difficult (if not impossible) to attain cultural norms of achievement. success. and power because of racism and economic exploitation (Basow, 1992). Sexual orientation. age. and occupation are frequently associated with role strain. Lesbians and gay men often experience role strain because of the pressures associated with having an identity heavily stigmatized by the dominant cultural group (Basow. 1992). Women in their thirties may experience the highest levels of role strain; they face a large amount of stress in terms of role deroands and conflicting work and family expectations (Basow. 1992). Dentists, psychiatrists, and police officers have been found to experience high levels of occupation-related role strain. which may result in suidde.'lThe concepts of role expectation, role performance, role conflict, and role strain are illustrated in Individuals frequently distance themselves from a role they find extremely stressful or otherwise problematic.
Rok distancing occurs. when people consciously foster the impression of a lack of commitment or attachment to a particular role and merely go through the motions of role performance (Coffman, I961b). People use distancing techniques when they do not want others to take them as the "self" implied ill a particular role, especially if they think the role is "beneath them:' While Charles is working in the fast-food restaurant, for example, he does not want people to think of him as a "loser in a dead-end job." He wants them to view him as a college student who is working there just to "pick up a few bucks" until he graduates. When customers from the university come in, Charles talks to them about what courses they are taking, what they are majoring in, and what professors they have. He does not discuss whether the bacon cheeseburger is better than the chili burger. When Charles is really involved in role distancing, he tells his friends that he "works there but wouldn't eat there, " Role Exit Role exit occurs when people dise'ngage from social roles that have been central to their self-identity (Ebaugh, 1988). Sociologist Helen Rose Fuchs Ebaugh studied this process by interviewing exconvicts, ex-nuns, retirees, divorced men and women, and others who had exited voluntarily from Significant social roles. According to Ebaugh, role exit occurs in (our stages. The first stage is doubt, in which people experience frustration or burnout when they reflect on their existing roles. The second stage involves a search for alternatives; here, people-nay take a leave of absence from their work or temporarily separate from their marriage partner. The third stage is the turning point, at which people realize that they must take some final action, such as quitting their job or getting a divorce.The fourth and final stage involves the creation of a new identity. Exiting the "homeless" role is often very difficult.
The longer a person remains on the streets, the more difficult it becomes to exit this role. Personal resources diminish over time. Possessions are often stolen, lost, sold, or pawned. Work experience and skills become outdated, and physical disabilities that prevent individuals from working are likely to develop. However, a number of homeless people are able to exit this role.