Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Role Dynamics: A User-Friendly Language

Originally posted on April 22, 2011

One of the challenges today, it seems to me, is to bring practical psychology into the mainstream. I think one of the factors inhibiting this integration is the fact that much of psychology for 40 or more years was “tainted” by psychoanalytic jargon, which has a unfortunate tendency to pathologize—that is, to make ordinary behavior seem as if it’s sick, pathological, not okay. So we need a more semantically neutral way to describe how the mind works. I’ve found that talking in terms of the roles we play and how we play them offers a relatively “user-friendly” language. To be thus, it has to be easy to learn and easy to apply to a wide range of situations.

The term “role” of course derives from the roles played in theatre and other performances. Shakespeare, though, noted that ordinary lives might also be thought of as if they were roles in a great, complex story: In Act 2, scene 7 of his play, As You Like It, Shakespeare has one of his characters muse on the trajectory of life in a little speech called “The Seven Ages of Man.” It begins, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women in it, merely players.” This line illustrates the use of a dramaturgical metaphor for life: That is, a phenomenon far too complex for any definition is made more comprehensible by using a metaphor that compares it to  something that seems simpler. To call it  dramaturgical likens the metaphor to a performed play or movie. What if life is in some ways like a play? What if the complexities of life can be made a bit more understandable by thinking of them as roles interacting? We can then analyze these—take them apart.

It turns out that most roles are complex, involving a number of components. You may be a customer dealing with a salesperson, but your or her attitude may add another tone to the transaction. Marriage, parenting, many friendships, many jobs, and the like contain numerous sub-roles and often sub-sub roles. Things might go well in some of these interactions, but there are frictions with some of these sub-components. How to figure out what’s wrong?

I have much to say about roles and how they work (including many articles on my website). Role dynamics is sort of the frame of reference for thinking about a lot of individual, relational, and social psychology. One of the advantages of role dynamics is that many of our roles have all these aspects. I’ll have more to say about roles as I post other blogs about psychological literacy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *