Adam Blatner, M.D.

April 7, 2010   These introductory comments have supporting references throughout the website. For example:

We live in an era in which psychology needs to be recognized as being as relevant as science. (See recent paper on "Psychological-ization") For over a century pioneers have been developing a wide range of theories and methods that can be used not only for treatment of those in the sick role, but also for helping healthy people to be even more mentally resilient to the stresses of contemporary life.

This website has many papers that speak to this end. As a psychiatrist with over 35 years of clinical practice, now retired, I have turned my attention to the challenge of mental hygiene. That term really refers to prevention, to what people can do for themselves and each other to promote more vitality and consciousness. I believe that many of the insights gleaned in psychiatry, psychology, sociology, and related fields can be presented in ways that ordinary people can understand.

One tool for this is to convert a lot of the jargon of various types of psychology to a user-friendly language that most people can understand. I believe that an adaptation of social role theory can do this: Just talk about the situations in life in terms of the roles one plays, and how those roles are made up of role components and sub-components; how roles can be changed, played with, added on, let go of, redefined, argued about—oh, all sorts of things. Roles are to the business of conscious living what notes are to the activity of making music—a really handy tool.

What’s Wrong With “Role” Language?

If role is such a good tool, how come this theory hasn’t been more widely used? The answer is that the word is too loose for scientific precision. We play roles at many levels, often at the same time: There are roles we play inside our minds, like the mischievous little kid versus the cautioning inner parent; there are roles we play with those in our family, and roles we play in work groups and organizations. There are roles in neighborhoods, clubs, and other face-to-face organizations, and we also play roles in larger collectives where people don’t know who we are. In a larger sense we play roles in our culture and even in the ecological situation our planet is in. Moreover, many roles contain influences from roles at “lower” (more individual) as well as “higher” (more culture and species) levels! So it’s hard to pin down, and that’s what science and scholarship tries to do.

But for practical living, the truth is that we bounce around at many levels all the time, our minds and identities can’t be pinned down, and role becomes a very useful tool for figuring out what is needed to help our relationships, ourselves, and the social, economic, political, religious, and other systems in which we operate.

Role theory reflects a way of thinking about complex situations as if they were scenes in a play. The technical term for this is “dramaturgical metaphor”—as in Shakespeare’s line, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women in it, merely players.” And just as actors play a role, so do ordinary people, only with us it’s almost all improvised.

Of course there are lots of other models of psychology and sociology, but my point is that role theory (a) combines the best of both fields and others, too; and (b) is simply the easiest and most practical to use. The words are familiar, because we all live in a world saturated by drama, on television, in movies, video games, etc. People play roles—folks get that. This theory just takes off from there in a somewhat more systematic fashion.

Basically, the game is to imagine a situation in terms of the various people and issues involved—the issues being played by an imagined spokesperson, a visiting consultant, a newspaper editor, etc. Who is in this picture? Who are some of the people involved playing to, in that they are imagining an outside audience—their parents, living or dead, God, the public, children or as yet-unborn grandchildren, etc.—others who would “find out” what has transpired and judge.

There are a goodly number of other webpages about role theory that add on to this point.    Role Dynamics: A User Friendly Theory    ;   

Teaching Psychology

Finally, I’d like to get this language, this approach, used to teach ordinary psychology from middle school on. I’d like to see practical psychology become part of the core curriculum. If you have done any of this, used role theory this way, let me know. If you have further questions, well, correspond with me:

          For suggestions regarding revision or additions, feel free to email me: