3 Social Science Theories

Module Learning Objectives (MLO)

In this chapter, you will learn how to:

  • MLO 4.1 Identify foundational concepts and theories related to identity and dress. [CLO 1]
  • MLO 3.2 Summarize the role of dress in identity development. [CLO 1]
  • MLO 3.3 Analyze identity and dress with social science theories and concepts. [CLO 2]

There are hundreds if not thousands of social science theories that relate to and help explain dress, appearance, and identity. In this chapter, a few theories are described.

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, grandma, parent
    • gender roles of man, woman, non-binary person
  • 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

A man in a suit holds a toddler in one arm while speaking on a cell phone.
Image Source: Pavel Danilyuk

In carrying out some roles, an individual may experience conflicts. An inter-role conflict, or a conflict between two roles, may occur when an 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 or wears the attire for the most demanding role all day.

An example of inter-role conflict might be if a parent who is a marketing director prefers to change their clothes after arriving home to spend time with their infant, who throws food around and spits up on the parent’s clothes at times. But work stress and time limitations may require her to be a parent sometimes while wearing her work suit.

A doctor listens to a patient's breathing through a stethoscope on their back.
Image Source: Thirdman

In contrast, an intra-role conflict is one that conflicts within a role due to changing expectations for a role across different groups in a society. In these situations, the role player may change clothes with differing audiences or limit the audiences with access to them.

An example of intra-role conflict might be a medical doctor who prefers 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).

Watch this short video to demonstrate the power of cultural norms

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 the 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:

  • A black soldier smiles at the camera in uniform with her arms crossed.
    Image Source: RODNAE Productions

    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


Symbolic Interactionism – Public, Intimate, and Secret Self

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 driver, 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 with 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.

Two teenagers lounging in sportswear and eating pizza in a dark room.
Image Source: KoolShooters

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.


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.

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, 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.

Focused Example: Prison Uniforms

The Stanford Prison Experiment is a famous study that was conducted at Stanford University in the 1970s.  Watch this short film and pay attention to how the dress was used to strip inmates of their identities and for the guards to enact control.




Representation of thinking and ideas being generated. Two black heads face eachother. One has question marks above the head. The other has yellow light bulbs above their head.

Social Science Theories Case Study

Step One: Become familiar with the case study

  1. The case study attached below is a word document and can be downloaded. It includes the task, evaluation, and template for the case study:

Social Science Theories Case Study [DOC]

Step Two: Submit your complete assignment on Canvas

  1. Format your document.
  2. Reminder to check the submission against the rubric.


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

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