No theory forbids me to say "Ah!" or "Ugh!", but it forbids me the bogus theorization of my "Ah!" and "Ugh!" - the value judgments. - Theodor Julius Geiger (1960)

Ralf Dahrendorf (1958), Homo sociologicus - An attempt at the history, meaning and criticism of the category of social role

“By entering in social roles, homo sociologicus is alienated from his/her whole human being”

In the Foreword, Dahrendorf speaks positively about Heinrich Popitz’ proposal not to use the concept of role expectations via social norms, but rather the concept of role impositions via social norms, power and technology. Dahrendorf was writing in the fifties of the 20th century, when structuralism was in vogue. After that came the cultural turn and after that the turn to practice. All are legitimate perspectives for a kaleidoscopical view of society.

Science makes use of otherwise obscure sections of the world; categories which impose themselves on people who try to come to grips with the object of their study. Once invented, they are not only operationally useful, but also plausible categories, evident in a certain sense. Dahrendorf starts his essay by comparing scientific images of daily utensils with our everyday experience. We don’t care if our table is the physicist’s “beehive of atomic particles”. The closer we get to human selves, “the more disturbing the difference between the object of naive experience and its scientific construction”. While biological categories still don’t make the uniqueness of human beings disappear, this is different for social science; its constructed world include humans as acting, thinking, feeling beings.

Dahrendorf describes two controversial constructed men: (Mill- and Smith-inspired) economic man (homo oeconomicus), the fully informed, thoroughly rational person, and (Freud-inspired) psychological man, the person who, even if he always does the good, possibly always wants the bad. Dahrendorf himself reconstructs man as sociological man (homo sociologicus) - man as the bearer of socially pre-formed roles -, and keeps an eye on the moral problem of this duplicated human being. Sociology, according to Dahrendorf, is concerned not with the social group, but with the human being as a bearer of social roles in the face of the annoying fact of omnipresent society. Sociology’s object, according to Dahrendorf, lies in the discovery of the structures of social roles.

Social roles have synonyms in literature, from Plato, Seneca and Cicero to Luther and Shakespeare. These roles are parts (like in a theater) of a complex of behavior. A character can be partly innate and psychological, another acquired and social in nature. We have to learn this social character in order to be able to play it. Another theater metaphor is that of the masks we wear. Man always appears on the world stage with a new mask; the individual appears as the bearer of socially preformed attributes and behavior, be it because of gender or age, family or occupation, national or class position etc. That we all are social beings is more than a metaphor, however; our social roles are more than masks that can be removed.

Society is that inescapable fact which, by giving the individual profile and determination, lifts him out of his individuality into something universal and alien. Certainly there are people who deviate from their roles, but they are deviants, outsiders. To win the benevolence of the society in which the individual lives, he/she has to play his/her roles according to their preformed attributes. When the individual resists the demands of society, he/she may retain an abstract and helpless independence, but he succumbs to the wrath and painful sanctions of society.

Dahrendorf sees society as an annoying fact that we cannot escape, because of the compulsion that social roles exert on the individual “as a shackle of his private desires or as a support that gives him security”. Society has sanctions at its disposal with the help of which it can enforce the regulations: punishment like imprisonment or contempt and rewards like medals and prestige. Although rewards can be dispensed with and medals can be rejected, it is extremely difficult in any society to escape the power of the law or social ostracism. Society coins a form for each position available within it and it watches that the holder of that position does not cast aside the form he finds or that he/she seeks to create his/her own forms. The sanctions associated with these forms are also inescapably subject to change. Dahrendorf distinguishes three kinds of role expectations:

  1. Mandatory expectations, with negative sanctions embedded in the power of the law and legal institutions. In addition, many organizations have developed their own quasi-legal institutions to monitor compliance with their code of conduct, through extreme sanctions such as dismissal or exclusion, although the effect of milder penalties, from tacit exclusion to warnings, transfers and delays in promotion, may not be underestimated. Mandatory expectations can be found in the area in which society as a whole and its legal system become the reference group for the individual, in which the holder of a position is subject to regulations whose observance is guaranteed by laws and courts.
  2. Target expectations whose enforceable binding nature is large as well, although those who always comply with them on time can be sure of the sympathy of their fellow human beings: they behave in an exemplary manner, always do the right thing, they can be relied on. Target expectations often come from public organizations or institutions, from professional organizations, companies, parties or clubs. These usually germinate statutes, fixed habits and precedents from which their norms and functions can be read.
  3. Optional expectations - voluntary actions, with which someone acquires the esteem (primarily positive sanctions) of fellow human beings. The person who only ever does what is absolutely necessary must already know very effective alternatives of satisfaction in order not to be disturbed by the contempt of his fellow human beings. This applies above all in the professional sphere, in organizations, where the fulfillment of optional expectations is often a basic condition of progress. In the case of optional expectations, studying documents or asking informational questions hardly helps us any further. If we do not want to deliver the concept of role to the arbitrariness of individual opinions, but want to keep it at the intersection of the individual and the fact of society, then it is better to forgo the precise formulation of many possible expectations for the time being than to deal with the apparent precision of one opinion poll to give up the possibility of using the role category in all its fruitfulness. We can formulate the tangible elements of social roles on the basis of established norms, habits and precedents (which, moreover, are often present in the case of can-expectations).

Any person plays his or her roles because law and custom compel him or her to do so, but in playing the roles, law and custom become particular dimensions for the person: the existence of sanctions makes role expectations tangible and verifiable. Sanctions are ideally suited for classifying the importance of social roles, by looking at their level of liability (severity of imposed sanctions) and institutionalization. The liberties of role fulfillment seem small when measured against the compulsion of sanctioned role expectations. However, the fact of society can be a scaffolding that keeps us upright and secure. The problem of man's freedom as a social being is a problem of the balance between role-determined behavior and autonomy, of freedom and necessity. Even in a totalitarian state, at least what should and what can be expected elude administrative decree, Dahrendorf writes: many norms of social behavior exist without the government knowing them or even wishing to know them.

Most positions involve their holders not only in a single relation to another position, but place him/her in a field of relations to persons and categories or aggregates of persons. The social-psychological concept of the reference group describes the fact that an individual orients his behavior and that of others towards the approval or rejection of groups to which he does not belong himself; those groups to which his positions necessarily relate him. Each positional and role segment is a connection between the holder of a position and one or multiple reference groups. The position field of e.g. a certain employee can be specified as an aggregate of reference groups, each of which imposes regulations on him/her and is able to sanction his behavior positively or negatively. Reference groups determine and sanction the expectations of the positions they localize.

The concept of role describes those behaviors that are binding for the individual and whose binding is institutionalized, i.e. independent of his/her or anyone else's opinion. Surveys in this area can only have the purpose of determining regulations and sanctions that actually apply in these groups, i.e. to a certain extent constitute the positive law of these groups. The authority that determines role expectations and sanctions can be found in the segment of norms and sanctions applicable in reference groups, which refers to positions and roles localized by these groups. The articulation of such expectations in each case presents us with the task of first identifying the reference groups of a position and then finding the norms that each group knows with regard to the position in question.

Not the validity, but the legitimacy of norms can be measured by confronting them with the opinions of those affected. Dahrendorf theoretically distinguishes:

  1. Fixed norms of reference groups, which are given to the holder of a position as role expectations,
  2. The opinions of the members of affinity groups about these norms, which determine their legitimacy and change, and
  3. The actual behavior of the players of roles.

Laws and regulations accompany us in most of our social roles as latent expectations or, more often, as latent prohibitions. Each group contributes to shaping the forms of many roles, and in turn, each role can be the result of the action of many groups. The resulting form is not always a uniform, well-balanced structure. Rather, by linking roles and reference groups, Dahrendorf makes role conflict accessible to more rigorous analysis.

The problem of assigning a large number of elements from the set of people and an even larger set of positions is a problem with an unmanageable number of possible solutions. But groups can be distinguished among these solutions according to certain criteria, and social mechanisms can be specified that lead to certain solutions. Just as the behavior of the homo sociologicus itself does not simply follow the laws of probability, the process of assigning positions is not an unregulated mathematical experiment.

The most important distinguishing feature of social positions with regard to their assignment, according to Dahrendorf, is whether they accrue to the individual without any action on his part, or whether she can get hold of them through his own activity. In addition to biological characteristics such as age, gender, a position in the family of origin (such as son or daughter), there are ascribed positions such as being of a certain nationality. There are also positions that have been acquired, such as treasurer of a club, car driver, civil servant. In industrial societies, typically, the educational system becomes the decisive social mechanism for assigning acquired positions, at least insofar as these are broadly identifiable as occupations. In schools, colleges and universities, the choice of the individual is coordinated with the needs of society on the basis of the standard of achievement; the certificate or diploma of the educational institutions combines both into a proof of entitlement for positions acquired. The principle of performance (activity, success) also prevails within social organizations as a criterion for assigning positions, although other mechanisms of performance evaluation take the place of school diplomas.

Even the ascribed position "man" limits the sum of all other possible positions; Adult, academic, and resident of Smalltown X are further limitations that eventually narrow John Doe's horizons of personal choice to the point that only a manageable number of positions remain open to him. Social positions are a gift from society to the individual, which turns out to be a Trojan horse: Even if he did not acquire them with his own effort, but they are attributed to him without being asked, they require a performance from him; for every social position has a role attached to it, a set of expectations of the behavior of its bearer, who is sanctioned by the reference groups in his field.

But before the individual can play his roles, he must know them; like the actor, the social being must also learn his roles, become familiar with their content and their sanctions: the process of socialization through the internalization of behavioral patterns.

Allocation of positions and internalization of roles are complementary processes, and industrial society has entrusted the educational system with the task of safeguarding them. The educational system is supported by the family, the church and other organizations in these tasks. Socialization and internalization are at the intersection of the individual and society, and thus Dahrendorf locates the role category on the boundary between sociology and psychology.

Through observation, imitation, indoctrination, and conscious learning, man/woman must grow into the forms that society holds in store for him/her as the bearer of his positions. Parents, friends, teachers and superiors are important to society as agents who write on the blank page of the roleless person with the plan of his/her life in society. Society's interest in family, school and church does not only express the desire to help the individual to fully develop his individual abilities, but above all the intention to effectively and cost-effectively prepare him for the tasks that society expects of him to fulfill. For society and sociology, the process of socialization is always a process of depersonalization, in which the absolute individuality and freedom of the individual is suspended in the control and generality of social roles.

From the perspective of individuals and psychology, he does not give himself away to a stranger, he is not socialized; Rather, he takes what exists outside of himself, internalizes it and makes it part of his individual personality. As we learn to play social roles, we lose ourselves in the reality of a world we didn't create, and at the same time win ourselves as unique personalities, shaped in the world's nuisance. The role expectations can increase our knowledge; but they can also force us to repression, lead to conflicts and thus touch us deeply.

The socially most important accompanying phenomenon of the internalization of social roles is the parallel individualization of sanctions. At its most frightening, the world of homo sociologicus is a Brave New World, or 1984, in which all human behavior is predictable, reliable, and subject to constant control. Role expectations are seldom definitive; in most cases they appear more as a sector of allowed deviations. Our behavior is determined only privatively, particularly in the case of expectations that are predominantly associated with negative sanctions; we are not allowed to do certain things, but as long as we avoid them, we are free in our behavior. Role expectations and sanctions are subject to constant change, and the actual behavior and opinions of the individual drive this change.

Ralph Linton wrote (1936; Status and Role):"A role represents the dynamic aspect of a status. The individual is socially assigned to a status and occupies it with relation to other statuses. When he puts the rights and duties which constitute the status into effect, he is performing a role." Dahrendorf asks: "If "status" denotes a "collection of rights and duties" - what then remains for the role? Is there an objectively justified, formulatable difference between the static and the dynamic aspect of the place in a social field of relationships?" Dahrendorf criticizes the use of the terms "static" and "dynamic" in sociology. They are completely out of place in the present context. To what extent is one's right "more static" than mine's actions? To what extent is one's position more "static" than one's right? Unfortunately, Linton's distinction between "static" positions and "dynamic" roles has been passed down through a generation with his definition. Linton himself seems to understand roles not as sets of expected behaviors (which he rather ascribes to status as "rights and duties") but as individuals' actual behavior in the face of such expectations. This turns the role from a quasi-objective elementary sociological category that can in principle be determined without asking individuals to a variable in social-psychological analysis. K. Davis writes: "How an individual actually performs in a given position, as distinct from how he is supposed to perform, we call his role. The role, then, is the manner in which a person actually carries out the requirements of his position. It is the dynamic aspect of status and as such is always influenced by factors other than the stipulations of the position itself. Here the role category no longer designates what we considered to be constitutive for it, namely behavioral expectations. HH Gerth and CW Mills write: "More technically, the concept of role refers to (1) units of conduct which by their recurrence stand out as regularities and (2) which are oriented to the conduct of other actors. The regular behavior of individuals towards other individuals gains sociological significance insofar as it can be understood as behavior towards pre-formed patterns, i.e. as a reflection of those non-individual facts which, in contrast to Linton, Davis, Gerth and Mills and many social psychologists, we regard as social named roles. Homans formulates the role of a person as: "A norm that states the expected relationship of a person in a certain position to others he comes into contact with." Parsons writes: "The role is that organized sector of an actor's orientation which constitutes and defines his participation in an interactive process. It involves a set of complementary expectations concerning his own actions and those of others with whom he interacts." Merton: "Structurally defined expectations assigned to each role". These descriptions are based on the objectified, sociological idea of ​​complexes of expected, not actual, regularities in behavior. The sum and average of the actions of individuals are just as little able to explain the reality of law and custom as a consensus determined by questioning. Society is a fact, and an annoying one at that, precisely because it is created neither by our sudden intuitions nor by our habits.

With their distinction between roles and role segments, or sets of roles and roles, N. Gross and Robert Merton paved the way for linking role theory and reference group theory and opened up possibilities for the empirical study of social roles. Dahrendorf sees this as an opportunity to use the metaphor of homo sociologicus on empirical problems. Only then does man, as a position holder and role player, turn from the idle paradox of thought to the oppressive counterpart of the whole man of experience, and the alienated rebirth of man in homo sociologicus becomes the inescapable problem of a philosophical critique of sociology.

In the concept of the role, Gross rightly emphasizes the unity of complexes of expectations that are linked to a single position. However, this does not exclude to, with Merton, treat roles as sets of expectancy elements in the mathematical sense.

Homo sociologicus is first and foremost a means to the end of rationalizing, explaining, and controlling a slice of the world in which we live. For most problems, partial descriptions of roles suffice for the analysis; moreover, the description of social roles entails significant methodological and technical problems. The first task on the way to the empirical identification of social roles is to single out groups of social positions in which each individual typically holds a position. By delimiting the most important groups of social positions (family, profession, nationality, classes, age, sex), for example, the description of the positions that an individual occupies is based on a guideline.

To classify role expectations according to their binding nature, we make a start by distinguishing between mandatory, target and voluntary expectations. On the basis of the negative sanctions that monitor behavior in certain roles, it would be conceivable to make quantitative distinctions, e.g. a scale that provides all possible negative sanctions from prison sentences to contempt by members of the reference groups with measured numbers could serve to classify role expectations from at least one aspect.

The second task of describing social roles is to determine the reference groups that define the location of certain social positions. The most important task of role description is the identification and formulation of role expectations and sanctions. For each position, it is necessary to determine the laws that apply to it, as well as the regulations and customs of reference groups.

A method that has proven itself in many social-psychological problems can also be used to determine the voluntary expectations that cannot be grasped in this way. It is possible to deduce some of a person's social positions from their appearance, speech and behavior, to a certain extent to position them. This game can be reversed. One could ask any group of people about the appearance and behavior that they think is expected of the incumbent in a given position (e.g., Mead, Eisenstadt; comparing specific descriptions of individual job roles across historical and geographic boundaries). The roles are contrasted with the actual behavior of their bearers. And one confronts the norms of reference groups, insofar as they define role expectations, with the opinions of the members of affinity groups about these norms.

In both cases, the use of the role concept can give us insights into the laws of social change. We can read the stability of social processes from the correspondence between roles and actual behavior or norms and opinions; their non-conformity betrays conflicts and thus directions of development.

Many problems of social behavior can be explained by understanding them as conflicting expectations within roles, by the differentiation of role segments, Dahrendorf writes. The determination of intra-role conflict is very important for examining society's social structure. An example is the physician's role in bureaucratized medicine with the dual expectation of serving the patient and fulfilling administrative obligations. Another example are the contradicting expectations of reference groups like clients and higher authorities in academia; these make every holder of the position a lawbreaker or produce behaviors that are by no means intended by the reference groups.

Older is the concern with conflicts that arise where a person has multiple roles with conflicting expectations. Such conflicts between roles (inter-role conflict) are structurally important above all when they are not based on the random choice of individuals, but on the laws governing the assignment of positions. Workers and entrepreneurs are the bearers of two roles that are defined, among other things, by conflicting role expectations. The contrast between them is structural, i.e. it is in principle independent of the feelings and ideas of the role players. All sociological statements about their relationship leave them untouched as human beings; they are statements about human beings as holders of positions and players of roles. Dahrendorf writes that all assumptions and sociological theories are always exclusively assumptions and theories about homo sociologicus, i.e. about man in the alienated form of a bearer of positions and a player of roles.

"Sociology deals with the structure and dynamics of human existence", Alfred Weber wrote. Dahrendorf disagrees with Weber's opinion that sociology has lost sight of the autonomous whole human being and his freedom. If sociology wants to be a science, it has to research, in Kant's language, man under the spell of natural law, whose every step is just a link in a chain of recognizable references. Dahrendorf shows two perspectives of the same object, both fed by different reasons of knowledge and therefore not contradictory: The sociologist describes the human being as an aggregate of roles and inadvertently claims to have validly discovered the essence of the human being. His critic, on the other hand, denies him any right, in the name of the whole human being, to attempt to break down human beings into elements and to reconstruct them scientifically. So, we have the human being as a role-playing, determined being, from which we want to investigate the moving causes of his actions physiologicaly; and he/she has an intelligible character, a practical reason, which makes him a free and moral being. These two characters are independent of each other and can take place undisturbed by each other.

Dahrendorf writes that social science and its research results represent a moral force which acts with such great power against the values ​​of freedom and individuality that morality is no longer able to stop them. Where Weber could still unite the relentlessness of value-free science and the passion of the moral position, sociologists - especially in the USA - became conformists, who where morally and politically disengaged. Weber rightly warned against mixing practical values ​​and scientific insights: science may not equal ideology. But the sociologist is very much allowed to select his/her problems from the point of view of their importance for the individual and his freedom. Dahrendorf calls the sociologist to be a motor for the development of a society of free people.