Social Science Theories

Role Theory

Role: a position occupied by a person in a social relationship (Biddle & Thomas, 1966).

Roles require and shape:

  • behavior associated with the role, including dress
  • knowledge and values needed to perform the role
  • status

For example, members of a police force have uniforms that must be worn according to regulations, as well as a code of behavior guiding their performance of the role. They need to learn laws and procedures to perform the role. If a police person does not value and take pride in their role, they are not likely to perform the job well.

Many of the roles we have are less specific about dress for the role. University students, for example, display some variety in their dress, but the norm on campus tends to be fairly casual and comfortable. Students are usually recognizable in comparison to faculty and administrators.

Status: position in relation to other positions. These include:

  • complementary positions within a general role type.
    • family roles of mom, dad, child
    • gender roles of man, woman
  • position on a continuum where someone ranks higher than another (in amount of money, authority, prestige).
    • owner, manager, assistant manager, salespersons in a store
    • upper, middle, and lower socioeconomic classes

Role norms: an expected set of behaviors for persons holding a role and status (Biddle & Thomas, 1966). Role norms regulate behaviors including dress, demeanor, and politeness expressions. For example, we have expectations for how medical doctors should dress in a hospital or at the office. If a doctor violates these expectations (such as working in shorts and a t-shirt) he or she may be perceived by some patients as less competent or serious. Other patients may find the violation of expectations to be amusing in this era of lax rules for dress.

Purpose of role dress:

  • learning a role
  • performing a role
  • identify others performing a role
  • shape reactions of others
  • assist in role change

Role dress helps an individual “take on a role” and be perceived by others as fitting that role. Looking like one has a role helps other people to assume that the person has the skills, knowledge, etc. to carry out the role. Solomon (1983) proposed that:

  • People who are early in their careers often dress more in accordance with role dress expectations. Responses from coworkers and clients to the role appropriate dress helps the newcomer to feel more adept in and a part of the role while learning it.
  • As people become more experienced and recognized as competent in a role, they are more likely to feel comfortable relaxing from the rules for dress or to explore more variety in role appearance.

Research supports these propositions for many, but not all, roles and individuals.

Restrictions of role adoption (Horn & Gurel, 1981):

Intrinsic: The individual lacks resources to acquire role props and settings. Resources include money and time.
Example: Most of us do not have the money and access to be a wealthy jet setter who attends exclusive parties with the rich and famous.

Moral: The individual has morals or values that keep them from performing behaviors essential to the role.
Example: Not wanting to dress like a prostitute and perform that role due to misalignment with morals about selling sex for money, even though it would be affordable to dress like a prostitute.

Organic: The body does not fit the appearance requirements of the role.
Example: Many women do not fit the “appearance requirements” to be in a beauty pageant.

Cultivation and socialization: The individual lacks the knowledge and training required to take on a role.
Example: A person might be able to don a lab coat and stethoscope, but most would not be able to effectively carry off the role of a medical doctor when the time came to demonstrate expertise about medicine. In many hospitals in the United States, physician interns are required to wear shorter, blazer length white coats while licensed doctors are allowed to wear knee-length white coats. The shorter coats indicate doctors-in-training who do not yet have full credentials to practice medicine on their own (Coleman, 2000).

Identity is defined to a great extent by the roles we play (Kaiser, 1990). We, in a sense, have multiple identities because of the many roles we all have.

  • You may be a student, male, in your early 20s, have a part-time job, go on dates, be a brother and a son, an avid bicyclist, and Latino American. Your dress may vary greatly or slightly when you focus on any one of these roles, and dress may reflect several of these role identities at one time.
  • Your total identity is a composite of all your roles as well as unique personality traits and habits you have.

Role Conflict

In carrying out some roles, an individual may experience conflicts.

  • Inter-role conflict: conflicts between two roles. The individual finds that the two sets of role demands are not always compatible. Sometimes appearance can help solve role conflicts if the multiple role player:
    • changes clothes for each role
    • wears attire for the most demanding role all day
      Example: A mom who is a marketing director may prefer to change her clothes after arriving home to spend time with her infant daughter, who throws food around and spits up on the mother’s clothes at times. But work stress and time limitations may require her to be a mom sometimes while wearing her work suit.
  • Intra-role conflict: conflicts within a role due to changing expectations for a role across different groups in a society. The role player may:
    • change clothes with differing audiences
    • limit audiences
      Example: Many medical doctors today prefer to wear semi-casual street clothes when seeing patients at the office. They do this to seem more approachable and easier to talk to. But some older patients expect to see the doctor in a lab coat, so the doctor may put on a traditional white doctor’s coat when seeing older patients (Blumhagen, 1979).

Role embracement vs. role distance (Goffman, 1959)

Individuals who take on a role and learn to embrace it as part of identity are more likely to accept role appropriate clothing. Individuals who have a role but feel distanced from it or from societal definitions of the role may be more likely to wear deviations from expected role attire.


Conformity: a change in an individual’s behavior or attitude to achieve consistency with real or imagined group norms (Kaiser, 1990).

Dress is an outward sign of conformity. Conformity facilitates:

  • Sense of identification, belonging, definition of self, role embracement
  • Safety or comfort in group acceptance
  • Group solidarity, peer bonding; conformity through dress defines group “boundaries” by identifying who is in a group and who is not.
  • Indicates similarity which is conducive to attraction (friendship, intimate, etc.)
  • Social inclusion vs. social uniqueness is emphasized

Conformity has its negative outcomes. It can be boring and monotonous. Too much required conformity can stifle creativity.

Some people are more prone to conformity through dress, while others are more interested in differentiating the self from others. Some basic personality characteristics may incline individuals to be (Storm, 1987):

Prone to conformity

  • Feelings of inadequacy or incompetency
  • Outer, other directed
  • Passive
  • Less tolerant of ambiguity
  • Dogmatic (wants absolute rules)
  • Authoritarian (needs guidance)
  • Need for social acceptance

Prone to differentiation

  • Feelings of competency
  • Inner, self-directed
  • Less passive
  • More tolerance for ambiguity
  • Less dogmatic
  • Independent
  • Less need for social acceptance

Uniforms (extreme conformity) (Joseph & Alex, 1972)

  • indicate prestige level of the wearer and symbolize skill level attained by the wearer
  • facilitate efficiency and organizational control
  • reveal only one role
  • suppress expression of individuality and idiosyncrasy
  • encourage group behavior and thinking rather than focus on the self

When is uniformity more likely for role dress? When the role:

  • requires special expertise and extensive training (i.e., surgeons in the hospital)
  • involves safety or security control (i.e., armed forces, police)
  • when role dress protects the body or facilitates task performance (i.e., firemen)
  • benefits from group or team solidarity and identification (i.e., sports teams)
  • establishes brand or organization image (i.e., McDonald’s servers, Target employees)
  • enforces identity control (i.e., prisoners)

In coercive total institutions such as prisons, uniforms are used to (Goffman, 1961):

  • strip personal identity to force an inmate to become part of the system
  • help (i.e., force) the inmates to leave their independent lives outside


Biddle, B. J., & Thomas, E. J. (1966). Role theory; concepts and research. New York: Wiley.

Blumhagen, D. W. (1979). The doctor’s white coat: The image of the physician in modern America. Annals of Internal Medicine, 91, 111-116.

Coleman, C. (2000, February 2). Just playing doctor? Shorter coats make residents feel naked. The Wall Street Journal, Sec. A.

Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor Books.

Goffman, E. (1961). Asylums: Essays on the social situation of mental patients and other inmates. Garden City: Doubleday.

Horn, M. J., & Gurel, L. M. (1981). The second skin (3rd ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.

Joseph, N., & Alex, N. (1972). The uniform: A sociological perspective. American Journal of Sociology, 77, 719-730.

Kaiser, S. B. (1990). The social psychology of clothing. New York: Macmillan.

Solomon, M. R. (1983). The role of products as social stimuli: A symbolic interactionism perspective. Journal of Consumer Research, 10, 319-329.

Storm, P. (1987). Functions of dress: Tool of culture and the individual. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Social Science Theories Case Study

The purpose of this case study is to:

  • Use social science theories related to dress and appearance practices to explain dress and appearance practices.


  • Use this document, and save it as “Social Science Theories Case Study your first and last name”
  • Answer the case study questions beneath each question below (meaning keep the question in your assignment sheet).
  • Answer the questions using the case study reading, the reading Lennon, Johnson, and Rudd (2017) Dress and Self pages 215-22 and Social Science Theory Notes. Be sure to cite the readings when paraphrasing or using a direct quote. Do not use or reference other sources that refer to similar topics when completing this assignment.
  • Keep answers typed, single spaced, 12-point font, no cover page, use Microsoft word, full sentences, 1” document borders, keep all of the assignment instructions and questions in your document
  • Review the grading rubric at the end of the case study

Case study reading:

According to Eicher (1981), there are three ways to think about the self. The public, intimate, and secret self (Eicher, 1981). The public self is the part of a person when in front of others in public including those outside of the friend or family network. Therefore, the public self is usually a part of the self that one is comfortable sharing with others in a broader sense. One example that some people might be comfortable sharing is their occupation. That is, if an individual works as a public transportation bus drive, they might wear their uniform when they get off of work and go to the grocery store to pick up dinner materials without feeling discomfort of sharing this part of who they are. However, if someone has a stigmatized occupation such as sex workers, they may be interested in concealing this part of who they are from their public self-presentation. The intimate self is described as a part of the self the individuals just share with those close to them such as friends or family. For example, an individual might be more relaxed after work and wear casual or pajama-style garments around the house in front of their family members. Lastly, secret self, refers to aspects of the self that one does not share with others. For example, this transwoman describes how she would sometimes dress in women- or girl-gendered garments without letting others know. Trans people experience significant discrimination; therefore, the transition or coming-out process for trans people is complex and may include a variety of experiences such as experimenting in the secret self space with different clothing styles.

According to symbolic interaction theory, individuals negotiate their appearance (and public and intimate self) in social interactions (Goffman, 1959). In symbolic interaction theory, the “program” refers to your response to your own appearance. In this process of the “program,” you evaluate your own appearance based upon how you look in the mirror and/or how you think others might perceive you. The concept of the “generalized other” is what you think others might expect to think of a particular identity. For example, if you are a librarian, you might wear a cardigan and glasses as these are sometimes stereotypes associated with librarian styles or how individuals might assume librarians might dress. In symbolic interaction theory, the “review” is also a part of identity negotiations in symbolic interaction theory. The “review” is the evaluation of one’s appearance from others. People can provide both verbal and non-verbal “reviews.” Verbal examples include, “wow, I love that shirt” or “that makes you look terrible.” Non-verbal reviews could include holding one’s purse closer to one’s chest as you walk by someone; this is a frequently reported experience by Black men.


Eicher, J. (1981). Influences of changing resources on clothing, textiles, and the quality of life: Dressing for reality, fun, and fantasy. Combined Proceedings, Eastern, Central, and Western Regional Meetings of Association of College Professors of Textiles and Clothing, 36-41.

Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. Garden City: Doubleday.

For this assignment, first, think about the role norms of the different spaces you go into and how this is reflected in your dress. In this assignment, you will “violate” role norms by dressing in a way that is not expected of you for that particular space. Some of the follow scenarios will help guide you on how to “violate” role norms.

  • Situational incongruity: Dress that is inappropriate for the occasion or situation, such as clothing that is much too formal for class, inappropriate for the weather, or wearing dress shoes to the gym.
  • Role incongruity: Dress that is inappropriate for a role. For example, if you wore the Cy mascot outfit to class. Or, if you work at Starbucks and wore your work uniform and apron to class. If you wore the garments typically worn by a nun, flight attendant, or construction worker to class and you don’t typically occupy these roles in your life.
  • Personality incongruity: Dress inconsistent with your self-image or lifestyle and worn in the presence of friends or other people who know you. Examples adopting goth-style make-up when you don’t normally wear this type of aesthetic or wearing extremely tight and sexy clothing when this is not normally who you are or what you wear.

Second, wear your role norm violation for at least 2 hours in one day. Be sure you will be around other people during this experiment and try not to tell others until after that this is a class assignment.

Third, observe others around you during this 2-hour time period. Take note of their verbal and non-verbal reactions to you. Also, take note of how you feel during the experiment.

Case study questions:

  1. First what is your normal role (or “public self”) in the situation you were in for the 2-hours of this assignment, that is, how do you normally dress in this situation?


  1. Then how did you violate the norms through dress for these 2 hours? Be specific and make sure to say what role you violated from the list above! Include a picture of yourself in the norm violation below (mirror selfie works!)


  1. What type of “review” did other people provide to your “role norm violation?”


  1. How did you feel about yourself during the experiment? How did other’s “review” make you feel about yourself during the experiment?


  1. Think about your past experiences. Describe a time when you or someone you saw had violated a role norm violation through their dress in the past. What was the situation, what was the expected dress and then what was the violation? If you can’t remember a past experience, describe a situation that would be true for you in the future.



100 points total

Meets or exceeds expectations

All parts of questions are answered.

Questions are answered correctly and in accordance with the information presented in the reading.

Answers contain at least two full sentences, contain explanations and examples where appropriate and show synthesis of information in reading when appropriate.


Some parts of the questions are answered.

Questions are mostly answered correctly in accordance with some information presented in the reading.

Answer contains less than two full sentences, contains brief explanation or example and shows little synthesis of information from reading when appropriate.

Needs development

No or few parts of question answered.

Questions are not answered correctly or in accordance with information presented in the reading.

Answer is short phrases or not complete sentences, contain no explanation or examples and show no or little evidence of information from reading when appropriate.

Question 1 is complete, correct, and well developed. 15-20 points 9-14 points 0-8 points
Question 2 is complete, correct, and well developed. 15-20 points 9-14 points 0-8 points
Question 3 is complete, correct, and well developed. 15-20 points 9-14 points 0-8 points
Question 4 is complete, correct, and well developed. 15-20 points 9-14 points 0-8 points
Question 5 is complete, correct, and well developed. 15-20 points 9-14 points 0-8 points


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Dress, Appearance, and Diversity in Society by Kelly Reddy-Best is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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