Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Role Theory

Originally posted on August 12, 2017

Role Theory is a user-friendly language for psychology. It should be taught when people are taught beginning psychology. People operate in learning whole clumps of things—“Gestalt” is the term use in German. The clump or Gestalt of human psychosocial behavior is the role. Although the role concept derives from the theatre—it’s a “dramaturgical” view of life—the concept need not be tied too closely to psychodrama or sociometry. These latter fields are elaborations, so to speak, of the workings of the role concept. They express the complexifications of our social belonging.

Role theory in the social or social psychological field is analogous to chemistry or physics in the fields of materials. What we’ve learned about chemistry and physics informs and enlightens us about our material world; role theory can enlighten us about our world of interpersonal and social interactions. It’s main perspective is not what our attitudes are or what the social attitudes may be, but really what is played out in our interactions. Nor does role theory, even supplemented by psychodrama and sociometry, exhaust the subject matter. There is also the dynamics and philosophy of creativity, for example, and related to that, the dynamics and philosophy of play.

As noted by Gestalt psychology, we perceive and relate to people and things as wholes, not as qualities apart from their whole. Role theory is a sort of application of Gestalt theory (not Fritz Perls’ Gestalt Therapy!) to social psychology.

I must acknowledge in passing that role theory is far more developed in the Australian and New Zealand psychodrama communities. But I don’t want to imply that I think that these perspectives on human life must have psychodrama in the background. Role theory is just a good way to recognize that human interactions operates in complex ways beyond those described by other psychological theories.

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