Networks of social roles constitute frameworks into which activities in society, organizations, and groups are organized and acquire meaning and by which individuals organize and understand the meaning of their own behavior and the actions of others. According to interactional role theory, roles are cultural resources but are typically vague, though people act as if they were real and relatively precise. Roles are continuously constructed and reconstructed as individuals engage in role-making in the course of interaction with incumbents of alter roles, or as legitimate role definers specify and respecify the organization of activity. When role definitions become ossified through formal organizational definition or strongly normative cultural tradition, or are too vague or internally or externally conflicting to supply a basis for action, the continuous process of role redefinition leads to the development of informal or working roles that deviate in significant ways from the formally recognized role definitions.
The dynamic reconstruction and role-making and the resolution of role conflicts are governed by three principles of functionality, representationality, and tenability. Roles are constantly modified for greater apparent effectiveness (functionality), limited by the understandings and misunderstandings of incumbents and legitimate role definers. Roles become vehicles for conveying certain images (representationality) and are framed and reframed in relation to what they are seen to represent. Roles are subject to continuous tension to supply a tenable balance of benefits to costs for role incumbents, limited by the power and resources of those incumbents.
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