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INTRODUCTION TO SOCIOLOGY

FACILITATING INSTRUCTOR GUIDE

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Some roles on the other hand are made very explicit and are very much part of our conscious life. A marriage ceremony and certificate spells out what is expected in the positions. A catcher on a baseball team, a police officer on the street, the driver in a getaway car, and a private in the army tend to be clearly defined and understood roles.

If you wonder if roles are really all that important, effective, or impacting…consider an experiment conducted by Philip Zimbardo at Stanford University.

He tested the effects of isolating normal, middle-class students from the outside world for a couple of weeks, putting them in a “prison situation” in which some them were in the position of guard and some were in the position of prisoner.

Within a few days, these people became their roles—that is, the guards actually came to act brutally, the prisoners really “wanted out.” Something happened to everyone involved: A structure evolved, the situation demanded new behaviors from everyone, and the new roles took over.

The situation became so nightmarish that the study had to be ended much earlier than planned.

Status Positions Form Our Identities

Much of our socialization involves learning about the many status positions and roles in the world. The child learns how firefighters and dentists work, what grocery clerks and teachers do. The child learns what Mom and Dad do, what bad guys do, and what good students do. The child plays at these roles, and in playing them displays a recognition that he or she knows the expectations attached to each.

An identity is who we see ourselves as. It is the name we call ourselves and the name we usually announce to others in our actions. For most of us, gender is our most important identity, but class position and occupation are also very important.

To discover our identities all we really have to do is list our positions in social structure and to determine which positions are most important.

The identity I have situates me in relation to others. I see who I am in relation to them. Their acts remind me of who I am; my acts toward them continue to tell them who I am. Identity, like role, is attached to my status position; it is my “social address” in social structure.

Peter Berger describes the experience of a newly commissioned office in the army—taking on the role and identity of being an officer:

At first the new officer is slightly embarrassed having enlisted personnel salute her/him.

With every salute given and accepted, the newly commissioned officer begins to change her/his attitude from one of slight embarrassment to one of expectation of respect from enlisted personnel.

In a short period of time, the newly commissioned officer becomes the role.

Copyright © 2005 Mount Vernon Nazarene University Adult and Graduate Studies

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