Adam Blatner, M.D.

(Revised May 2, 2006)     Link also to Bibliography of Role Theory-Related Books and Articles.
  (Other related webpages near the bottom of this paper).  

Role Dynamics is my name for my systematic development of role theory. A number of social psychologists  pioneered role theory--Cooley, Linton, Parsons, Newcomb, Sarbin, Ackerman, Biddle, and so forth--but the one who  has influenced my Role dynamics approach the most has been Dr. Jacob L. Moreno, the inventor of psychodrama. (I have written two books and many articles about psychodrama, including many papers on this website!) Role dynamics might be thought of as my effort to make Moreno's work more systematically coherent and to add some creative elaborations.

The basic theory emphasizes three points:
   (1) People play many roles, and the role concept offers an especially useful basis of a practical language for psychology.
   (2) The mind works on two levels: There is the pluralistic dimension, the way the mind may be (in part) understood as an aggregate of a multiplicity of roles (parts, sub-selves, ego states, sub-personalities, complexes, etc.). The other level, the "meta-role," modulates which roles are played when and how--this is the unifying function.
   (3). A useful approach to education or therapy involves cultivating the skills and identity of the meta-role, and making this role and its function explicitly conscious.

The Meta-Role

People learn to use the meta-role as soon as they learn to pretend, and the earliest hints may be found with the emergence of play, before the infant is a year old. Make-believe is noticeable during the second year of life. This is the awareness that activity can be understood as both real and not-real, two different frames of reference for interpersonal communications. You can see the meta-role operate when kids break out of role and comment on the play: "No, I didn't like that. Let's take it over."  "Ouch, you're playing too rough." "Okay, now I want to be the baby and you be the mommy." "Kings X, I have to go to the bathroom." Such expressions illustrate the role to meta-role shift.

In spite of learning this group of skills, the learning is implicit rather than explicit, and it progresses only to a limited degree in most people. The average person manages the role play more like an adolescent in many ways--especially regarding close emotional issues--even if they develop much more sophisticated skills in a few areas of work. The point here is that people can develop their repertoire of inner-management skills far more than they do. A corollary of this is that much of psychopathology may be viewed as ways people less effectively coordinate that role playing!

Another corollary: Most psychotherapies may be viewed as strengthening some of the various capacities of the self for more consciously and effectively managing that role playing process. Role dynamics aims at increasing the effectiveness of this process by making it more conscious, intentional, and educational.

I call this part of the mind that more or less effectively observes and coordinates the other roles the meta-role. ("Meta-" is the prefix derived from the ancient Greek for "beyond.") That's a general abstraction, but more vivid metaphors may also apply: The inner manager, inner director /playwright, inner Chief Executive Officer ("CEO"), conductor of the inner orchestra, chairman of the inner committee, etc.

The key to Role Dynamics involves making the meta-role function explicit, naming it, addressing it, inviting clients or students to identify with this role, and to dis-identify with the various social and character roles that are generally played in life. Then, having identified this role, develop its component skills, which are manifold: observing, mediating, investigating, assessing, interrogating, deciding, balancing, opening to "higher values," leading, etc. You see, it's more than just the relatively passive "observing ego" mentioned in the psychoanalytic literature. The idea is to promote a wide range of mature skills and to continue to refine and expand these over the years.  More about the component skills later on.  (More about the meta-role may be found on another article on this website titled "The Choosing Self.")

The Roles We Play

A role is something that could be portrayed, played in a dramatic enactment. Anything that could be shown on stage is a role. Some abstractions are not roles in themselves, but must be inferred, like "relationship" or "spiritual."  One can play at piety, but whether that's sincere or not cannot easily be determined.

The term "role" derives from the "rolled-up" scrolls that were the scripts held by actors in ancient plays. In time, the scripts became the actual parts played. (In the last century, in fact, illustrating language drift, the term has gone beyond the theatre and now refers to any general function category, such as "the role of hydrogen in the creation of sunlight," "the role of carbon dioxide in global warming," or "the role of the black market in Third World economies."  But the term is especially useful as a way of describing people's lives and the relational predicaments they involve.

People play many roles. Most familiar are the social roles:
 marital / romantic
 pet owner
 offspring of elder parents
 club member
  sports player
  extended family member
... and so forth.

In addition, there are character roles
  sports player
... and so forth.

And don't forget the fantasy roles:  Hero in daydreams, vindicated in the courtroom of Heaven, secret rebellious alter ego, and so forth.

Roles are learned, culturally conditioned, often can be developed, amplified, released (with more or less difficulty). Many roles involve a number of component roles, and often these in turn involve further sub-components. It is often useful to analyze these roles. People get into trouble from not doing so, but assuming that people are competent (or incompetent) in general regarding a role, while in fact they may be very competent at some role components, fair at others, and incompetent in a few. (Trouble arises when the situation calls for competence in those sub-roles where it's not present!)

Of course, it's not just a matter of competence--though that issue is too often ignored. People's problems might involve an imbalance of roles--over-involvement in some, neglect of others. The neglect can be by the individual or by the person's family when he was growing up. Sometimes people don't even know certain roles exist!

Applied Role Theory as Language:

Just talk about situations in terms of the roles the various people involved are playing. The more you do this, the easier this activity becomes. You become familiar with the language.With practice, you can then go on to define those roles in terms of expectations, sets of behaviors, and other features. There is little rigid doctrine and a wide degree of flexibility.

This approach also offers a way to enhance communication among professionals. One of the problems with the behavioral sciences is the lack of a "lingua franca," a term that was used to describe a kind of common language that people of many different backgrounds can use. In the past, Latin served in this way in Western Europe during the middle ages and well into the 19th Century–intellectuals from all the countries could meet and talk in this "second language." In the early middle ages, Hebrew was used to some extent by Jewish merchants traveling among the many countries. Mathematics has become a kind of lingua franca for many scientists. Psychology, however, has suffered with a variety of languages that are colored by the biases of their original schools of thought, and filled with jargon that requires a real familiarity with those schools. What is needed is a more accessible language.

Applied role theory is described in part in my recent 4th edition of Foundations of Psychodrama. However, its applications are so widespread that one may find this approach useful even if you know nothing about psychodrama and care less. Everyone today knows what roles are. The only trouble with the concept is that it lacks precision–or at least a degree of precision needed for certain kinds of scientific testing. It is exactly that quality that allows it to be used for practical purposes.

For example, one of the advantages of role theory is that it applies to the different "levels" of social organization and to the interactions between and among those levels! (One can speak of roles at the somatic level–the way people learn to eat, talk, sleep, excrete and even carry their bodies and breathe! Any pattern that can be taken on culturally, that is learned, that could be re-learned, these are roles!  One can speak of intra-psychic roles, the ways different parts of your mind talk to each other–which is the essence of psychodynamic psychology. Certainly there are family roles, group roles, as well as general social roles. And these in turn are affected by our culture–the way we perform what we have learned in the widest possible contexts. Even our spiritual life may be largely explored by thinking of the way we think of how God and the Saints and others play their roles.)

The key is that of really using this language. It's weaker as a method for mere academic description, trying to make generalizations that can go into papers in refereed journals. Rather, the strength in role theory is applying it in specific situations in order to clarify what's going on. You can use it to work out conflicts in your own life, to help others discover what the real issues are in their lives, to clarify confusing situations in committees or systems, etc.

Experimenting with this, I've discovered that I can explain most if not all psychoanalytic concepts, especially the ones that have confused me for months if not years, in far more understandable terms using role theory. And there is good justification for this. Others have spoken about the "theatre of the mind," meaning that it's possible to understand many psychological phenomena by viewing the process as if it were an inner dialog, or symposium, often with very immature players using all manner of simplistic or devious manipulations.

For example, the classical "defense mechanisms," mentioned by Anna Freud and others can better be understood by imagining someone in role saying certain self-reassuring or self-justifying words, perhaps as an aside. They can be appreciated as ways people try to compartmentalize their experience, or disown it, so that they don't have to deal with it in full consciousness. (They do this because, as I like to emphasize, people tend to avoid that with which they don't know how to cope.)  In another paper I talk about how these intrapsychic dynamics are also an extension or internalization of interpersonal and social dynamics: People are not only fooling themselves, but also fooling others, and colluding with self-deception. (After all, it's comforting to have those around you avoiding the same issues that you want to avoid!)

So the social roles that are involved in manipulations (such as the "games people play" as written about by the psychoanalyst who developed Transactional Analysis, Eric Berne, in the mid-1960s) also blend into the wider roles of propaganda, advertising, media manipulation, false platitudes, etc.  It's all related to sloppy thinking. But the "fool" is one of the great roles in drama, and there are innumerable ways of being foolish. Part of our challenge in life is to continue to discover new ones, new ways of fooling ourselves and each other, even though at the time we may have thought of those ways as perfectly acceptable ways to think and communicate.

Role Analysis

Any role can be analyzed in terms of its components. See this paper on role analysis elsewhere on this website.

Our Social Being-ness

Each individual plays many roles internally, in different relationships, and these are in turn embedded in circles of networks of affiliations at the level of family, organizations, and culture. See the complementary paper titled "Our Social Being-ness" to appreciate this perspective on role dynamics.

Advantages of  role dynamics

The advantages to this system, also known as applied role theory, may be found in a paper on theory in psychodrama, on another web-page on this website.

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