Anonymity and Recognition: Toward an Ontology of Social Roles

  • Maurice Natanson


Sociologists and social psychologists distinguish between “role,the unit of culture; position,the unit of society; and self,the unit of personality1.” More nearly philosophically based investigators such as William James, Charles H. Cooley, and George H. Mead have tended to interpret roles in terms of the self, and to treat the self as a many-faceted reality. “Properly speaking,” James writes, “a man has as many social selves as there are individuals who recognize him and carry an image of him in their mind2.” And the image which a man has of his social reality is defined by the requirements he recognizes as binding for himself and for others. James continues:

“Thus a layman may abandon a city infected with cholera; but a priest or a doctor would think such an act incompatible with his honor. A soldier’s honor requires him to fight or to die under circumstances where another man can apologize or run away with no stain upon his social self. A judge, a statesman, are in like manner debarred by the honor of their cloth from entering into pecuniary relations perfectly honorable to persons in private life. Nothing is commoner than to hear people discriminate between their different selves of this sort: ‘As a man I pity you, but as an official I must show you no mercy; as a politician I regard him as an ally, but as a moralist I loathe him;’ etc., etc.3

Although it is Mead rather than James who expressly uses the term “role”, it is evident that what James is concerned with in the present context is a theory of social roles. He takes it as given and obvious that roles exist, that men in everyday life grasp them and interpret them, live them, express them, and submit to their demands. Roles turn out to be formed expressions of some aspect of the self whose characteristics and dynamics are societally grounded. It is no harder to discover a social role than it is to encounter a human face. Exactly how hard is that? I propose to begin the exploration of social roles by way of an oblique strategy: a consideration of the human face. I hope to show that there is a mode of perception proper to both.


Social Role Social Reality Human Face Dyadic Relationship Essential Insight 
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  1. 1.
    Sarbin, Theodore R.: “Role Theory,” in Handbook of Social Psychology, I, 223. Edited by Gardner Lindzey, Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co. 1954.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    James, William: The Principles of Psychology, I, 294. New York: Henry Holt 1893.Google Scholar
  3. 10.
    Sartre, Jean-Paul: Being and Nothingness, translated by Hazel E. Barnes, p. 49. New York: Philosophical Library 1956.Google Scholar

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© Springer-Verlag Berlin · Heidelberg 1966

Authors and Affiliations

  • Maurice Natanson

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