Friday, September 07, 2007

Role Conflict

Let me tell you a story about a college student who saved the monkeys and got to hang out with Pamela Anderson.

Justin attends the University of Connecticut. He is also into animal rights. Now, saying that Justin is “into” animal rights is like saying Paris Hilton is “into” clothes or Donald Trump is “into” money (or bad hair). Justin is an animal rights activist. It’s not uncommon to see pictures in newspaper of him leading some protest or another. Heck, he even has animal-rights themed tattoos across his body.

In the last few years, Justin has been protesting the University of Connecticut’s use of monkeys in medical research. Apparently, an on-going medical experiment would buy monkeys, drill holes in their heads, stick metal rods into their eyes, and then start destroying parts of their brains to see what would happen. When he learned about this, Justin started protesting, holding press conferences, and sending letters to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)—the government agency that overseas animal use in experiments. When Justin could document violations of government policy, the USDA would send a warning letter to the medical researcher conducting these experiments. Eventually, the medical researcher gave up, saying that he was “voluntarily” terminating his study, but it’s clear that Justin single-handedly stopped the experiment.

In recognition of Justin’s achievements, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) gave him an award as the national animal-rights activist of the year, and a Hartford Courant story about the ceremony shows Justin smiling, with his arm around noted PETA supporter, actress Pamela Anderson. Maybe they just smiled for a photo-op, maybe they danced the night away—who knows?—but there they are together in the picture.

There’s a problem, though. All this recognition has come at a price for Justin—he says that his grades have suffered. This makes sense. It’s hard to study for a midterm when you’re chained to a laboratory’s fence or to write a paper when you’re writing press releases.

Justin’s dilemma, the trade-off between getting good grades and advancing animal rights, points to the concept of role conflict. As I wrote about in my last blog entry, roles are social positions that hold expectations for what we do. Each one of us holds multiple roles, and sometimes the expectations of our roles are mutually incompatible—they can’t all be met. This often happens to college students. As a student you should study for tomorrow’s midterm but as an employee you have to work tonight. As a son/daughter you should go home for the three-day weekend but as a friend you should go to the concert with your friends. As a boyfriend/girlfriend you should go out for dinner with your partner but as a dorm resident you should go to the floor’s intramural game.

The more roles one serves, the more often this role conflict happens, and it causes various problems. Role conflict can be stressful. Trying to manage the demands of different roles takes energy and time, and it can be overwhelming. People often get sick when they have too many roles to fulfill. For example, it’s a common sight during finals to see students sniffling away with a tissue box next to their bluebook.

Another consequence of role conflict is deviance. The expectations of any given role can be thought of as norms—like the laws of our country—and violating these norms can lead to punishment. If you show up late for work because of class, you can be fired. If you neglect your boyfriend/girlfriend to play intramurals, you might be dumped. If you go home to your parents’ house instead of going out with your friends, they might not invite you next time.
Usually we think of deviance as a part of who a person is. “This person likes to break rules,” “That person is a criminal;” but from the perspective of role theory, deviance is a function of the roles we serve, not of who we are. So, put anyone into incompatible roles, and the resulting role conflict will turn them into deviants of a sort. Take a nun in a convent, give her contradictory role expectations, and you have someone violating norms—a deviant.

This is not to say that people are helpless against role conflict; in fact, we do lots of things to successfully manage role expectations. We make detailed plans for out days and write them down in little books or PDAs—as a way of fitting everything in. We change one role make it fit with another. We read books and take seminars on how to manage our lives.
Still, as Justin found out, role conflict is part of life, and sometimes there is just no way of getting around it… at least not if you are going to hang out with Pamela Anderson.


Ben said...

My wife is still very proud of the fact that my seminary grades took a serious nose-dive after our first daughter was born. Good role choice she says.;-). (BTW, you might want to take a close look at those Kleenex boxes during exams . . . for deviant behavior within the "good" student role.)

Knumb said...

My weekly balance thread, in which I grade myself in important areas of my life, hinges on this concept.

I'd rather get 6 Bs on the "report card" than 3 As and 3Cs. My goal in Role Conflict is balance, even at the expense of excellence in any given area.

Mind you, that's oversimplifying it and some areas are more important than others, in actuality.

Knumb said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brad Wright said...

Good job Ben, with the lowered grades. I hadn't even thought about the kleenex boxes for cheating... I'll keep my eyes open.

John, the balance thread is a smart way of keeping an eye on the various roles you serve.

Ray Fowler said...

The subject of role conflict also comes up in studies on pastoral counseling. Some feel that the roles of pastor and counselor do not mix well, that long-term counseling with a parishoner effectively changes the relationship. This is also one of the reasons why counselors normally do not counsel close family members.

Brad Wright said...

Interesting Ray. I've actually been thinking about role theory and pastors... you guys have so many roles to do at one time. I don't know how you manage it.