How Role Replaced Personality as a Major
Category of Sociology
Published online: 30 June 2017
Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2017
Abstract Try to imagine sociology being without the role concept. The thought
experiment will strike us as impossible. And yet, through the early decades of the
20th century, remarkably few sociologists thought of social agents as incumbents of
social roles and as performing roles in their day to day lives. This article addresses a set
of related questions. How did sociologists manage without the concept social role?
How did they describe the social agent and his agency? When and in what circum-
stances was the term social role initially formulated and when did it enter the vocab-
ulary of social science? Ralph Linton’s The Study of Man (1936) is identified as the key
text in this history of the concept social role, foreshadowed in writings of Robert Park,
E. A. Burgess, and Kimball Young. Linton introduced his role idea in the midst of
disciplinary change with boundaries between sociology and psychology (particularly
social, and personal, psychology) being redrawn.
Few concepts have become so entrenched in sociologists’ minds as the notion of social
role. We struggle in trying to imagine how sociology could do without the idea.
Am Soc (2018) 49:280–298
To reduce the amount of tiresome circumlocution that would otherwise ensue, ‘sociology’ and ‘social
science’ are interchanged in this article as are, unless otherwise indicated, social role qua concept or idea and
social role qua term or word.
The author has incurred several debts in producing this article: to Professor Larry Nichols for erudite guidance
on improving the penultimate draft; to Deakin University’s library staff for obtaining me copies of a number of
works that were essential to my researching the topic, and to Dr. Tony Reid and Kerry Cardell for their
constructive criticism of earlier drafts.
* Struan Jacobs
Arts-Education, Deakin University, Geelong, VIC 3220, Australia