Definition of "role" specific to its use in and application to rolequeer theory.

In rolequeer theory, a role describes an explicitly defined social or hierarchical position that a given person or entity inhabits in a particular situation that is understood to have a particular meaning by the people in that situation. This is distinct from both the ideas of identity and actions, although it is related to each. Roles in rolequeer theory are closely analogous to roles in Dramaturgy (also called Sociological Role Theory), but differ in that rolequeer actors enact their roles in ways that disrupt power inequities and sabotage or destroy a power hierarchy enabled by the given roles.

Distinction between role, identity, and action

A role is not synonymous with an identity, nor is it solely the sum of a given person’s actions. When we imagine any given social ritual, such as a wedding, we assume that there will be people who perform the actions typically associated with certain roles, such as “bride,” “groom,” and “photographer.” The distinction is made clear in the following thought experiment.

Suppose Alice and Bob are getting married and they want to have pictures of their wedding. They hire Charlie, a friend who is employed by a fashion magazine as a photographer to photograph their wedding. However, Charlie falls ill on the day of the wedding and cannot make it. Does Alice and Bob’s wedding no longer have a photographer?

Each of these words can be used to describe a role, but can also describe an identity: the betrothed couple likely think of themselves not merely as “people who are getting married,” but also “the bride,” and “the groom.” They each have certain expectations about what “brides” and “grooms” are supposed to do (the actions they are supposed to take) during a wedding. Similarly, Charlie has been performing the act of making photographs as such a routine part of their day-to-day lived experience that they think of themselves as “a photographer.” They were also expecting to be Alice and Bob’s wedding photographer, but the fact that they cannot take on that role isn’t a threat to Charlie’s self-identity as a photographer, even though Charlie will empirically not take any photographs of Alice and Bob’s wedding.

If Alice and Bob want photos of their wedding to exist but Charlie cannot take on the role of “the photographer” for their wedding, they may hire or simply request that someone else fills that role. That other person may or may not also maintain a self-identity of “photographer,” but this hardly matters to Alice and Bob as long as the actions this person takes results in the existence of beautiful wedding photographs.

This thought experiment also highlights the way in which roles are intuitively understood to be in the service of some outcome (they are “functions of” some process) whereas identities are intuitively understood to be positions of self-certified knowledge. That is to say, the difference between “someone who takes pictures” and “a photographer” is that the person who takes pictures fulfills the role of “photographer” independent of whether or not they consider a part of themselves to “be a photographer.” They are a photographer by virtue of their having taken photos. Similarly, someone who considers themselves to “be a photographer” may very well assert this self-identity but this assertion is meaningless with respect to the question of whether or not they have ever taken any photographs.

Roles as part of role relationships

In every relationship, each person:

  • performs one or more actions,
  • maintains some identity or identities, and
  • embodies one or more roles.

Taken together, these three elements make up a role relationship in which one person, such as “the teacher,” has influence over and is simultaneously influenced by at least one other person, such as “the student(s)”.

Social problems related to ignorance or bigotry about roles

Problems can arise when roles are conflated with either actions or identities, or when the three concepts are treated as interchangeable, because they are not. For example:

  • the purpose of teaching is ostensibly to facilitate learning on the part of students, but when a person misunderstands their role of “teacher” to be an identity instead, the result is often that they perform their function (of facilitating learning) less well than they would have otherwise.
  • treating a specific person as a role is a form of persecution called dehumanization, because people are not equivalent to their roles. For example, a married couple will likely develop undesirable friction in their relationship if one or the other begins to treat their spouse as “a spouse” instead of the specific individual that they married. That is to say, when a husband treats his wife as “the wife” instead of “Alice, the woman I married,” misogynistic attitudes and behaviors manifested by the husband are the likely result, due in part to the powerful cultural influences about how “husbands” (the role) should treat their “wives” (another role). These cultural influences, by definition, can not consider whether or not those same influences are desirable or even beneficial for either spouse, because the cultural attitudes were also by definition not created by either Alice or Bob individually, nor were those cultural expectations created for the benefit of either spouse as individuals in the first place.

Problems also arise when roles are treated as static states from which a given person can never leave. Some such static roles even have their own well-defined terms; a static social role defined by heredity, for example, is called a caste. Beyond biologically inherited static social roles, there exist other forms of social stratification grouped by role that are socially harmful:

  • “The poor” and “the rich” are two examples of roles defined by socioeconomic class. They are roles because the average person has an expectation that “poor people” behave in certain ways that are different from how “rich people” will behave. When a country provides no opportunity for “the poor” to change and become members of “the rich,” it is said to have a problem with class mobility. The implication, here, is that the unchangeable nature of the role is harmful.

Finally, problems can also arise when some roles are treated as inherently inferior to other roles, such as in the case of “gender role” wherein characteristics associated with masculinity are valued over those associated with femininity, a phenomenon known as sexism.

When a country provides no opportunity for “the poor” to change and become members of “the rich,” it is said to have a problem with class mobility. The implication, here, is that the unchangeable nature of the role is harmful.

Clarification: I believe that when e.g. social scientists describe a society as having low class mobility, they are not necessarily critiquing the unchangeable nature of the roles themselves; rather, they are simply implying that it’s harmful to be unable to move between established roles. Considering it harmful that the roles themselves are inflexible would be a much more rolequeer critique.

SA: The difference between rolequeer and “switching.” A poor person who “changes and become a member of the rich” would be closer to a “class switch” rather than “classqueer.” (A person who queers class might take on some attitudes, behaviors, etc. considered the province of the rich while maintaining “poor” roles, identities actions simultaneously. “The Beverly Hillbillies” might be one classic example.)