Let us get through the tough and abstract part of saying why social roles are the fundamental unit of social life before getting on to some clear cut examples of social roles. A social role is any human activity that can be named, which is the same thing as to say that it is any human activity that can be typified, which means that it can serve as a model for such behavior, people comparing how they carry out an activity with the idea of the activity. Men and women are two different social roles, even if there are some cases that make this other than a binary choice, and even though it is a presumption to guess at some fundamental psychological makeup for these two (or more) roles rather than to settle for a definition of the two in terms of their overt biological characteristics.
A social role can be defined by its function or its circumstances or some combination of the two. Occupational roles usually center on functions. The job of a janitor is to clean up the floors so that other employees can use the offices, though it is also the case that janitors work at night when the rest of the employees are not there, and so share much in common with other night shift workers, like bakers, a lack of supervision and a family life that doesn’t follow the usual nine to five routine. Customary roles focus on circumstances. A priest may be someone who officiates at a liturgy, that being the essential function of a priesthood, even if it also provides other services to congregants, such as advice or consolation, but the main thing about a Catholic priest is a circumstance, his celibacy, which has for a thousand years been used as a sign of his elevation from his parishioners. Marriage is also mainly a set of circumstances: a shared bed and legal obligations one to another, whatever the state of affection between the two parties.
Social roles are best defined when as little as possible is claimed about their controversial qualities, definitions only stipulating what makes roles recognizable. A teacher is anyone who imparts information or learning, whether or not they do so in a classroom, and whether or not the students learn anything, and so, in that case, a definition describes a process that is distinctive and easy to accept as uncontroversial, and so does not judge whether teachers are worth their while, but only that they verbally interact with people who are presumably not as knowledgeable as are they for the purpose of making the students more knowledgeable or thoughtful.
It is a good question whether there are any units in social life that are anterior to or more fundamental than the idea of social role. Some might say that roles are made up of emotions that are part of the vast bestiary of emotions that people are prone to. But noone has ever shown what those emotions might be in that all the emotions that are named also qualify as roles in that any adjective can be turned into a noun. Jealousy is what a jealous person feels. These people are suspicious of their lovers and of the people who associate with their lovers whether or not there is any basis for the jealousy. Adjectives that are not emotions can also all be turned into nouns, and so made into social roles. A person who is thin can become known for his thinness, known as a thin person, and that was the case with all those Westerners known as “Slim” who were also stereotypically laconic and with the young Frank Sinatra, who was portrayed in cartoons as being as skinny as his microphone. Some people think that slim people are more attractive, but that is not a necessity of the role. It is also the case that some theorists will assert that activities can be broken down into component parts, like the movement of a hand or the rise of a voice, but I don't know anyone who has done that systematically, and so it seems best to treat an activity as meaning a purposeful event, such as driving a car, in which case one is a driver, while stepping on the breaks is an act within that activity and so does not deserve to be considered a separate activity.
A social role is therefore the basic building block of social life, organizations and societies growing out of it, as is also the case with social processes, which are no more than a sequence of steps whereby a role gets performed, like a wedding ceremony or a religious conversion, or the negotiation of a truce in wartime. A social role is therefore as profound, in its way, as is the idea of the atom to the physical world and the idea of the cell to the biological world. Everything in each of those worlds is made up of the combination of atoms or cells, however much atoms can be combined with other atoms in different ways and cells may become differentiated in their anatomy and functions. Social roles, for their part, may be so fundamental that they are indeed indivisible in that life without them would be the anarchic chaos of experience that Kant imagined it would be if experience were not organized under the categories of time and space. Social life without social roles wouldn’t be different; it just wouldn’t be.
We may also infer that apes use these categories even though they do not have the language to explain themselves but nevertheless seem to understand who is a spouse and who is a child. How far down the chain of consciousness that goes I do not know. Some dog fanciers think that their pets exhibit loyalty, which is the adjectival form of a role, in that they will remember a misplaced owner for years afterwards, and some dogs may do that, while other dog fanciers think that their pets are loyal to whomever regularly fills their doggie bowl with kibble, and some dogs may be like that, but in both cases dogs are capable of applying social categories to people. What is distinctive about people, who are the only creatures that have significant language, is that they can conceptualize their roles and so modify them in their minds as they move forward in their lives, women turned from mothers into girlfriends and then into wives, the customs of acceptable behavior towards the female sex also changing in the light of public social pressure.
This definition of social roles is quite different from the one provided by Robert Merton and Talcott Parsons, the two major theorists of sociological role theory. They treated roles as matters of social expectations. It was what people with a certain designation usually did. What is usual in role behavior determines what is legitimate for the role even if the role, that of a thief, for example, is not legal. But engaging in stealth to nab some items is what thieves do. By this standard, a teacher who lectures is being good at being a teacher if lecturing is regarded as a usual and accepted way to do things, not because it is an effective or an essential way of teaching because it presents the workings of a teacher’s mind as a model for how students might think. Whatever is is the right way to do things.
But that is to miss the mark by very far. Jews in Medieval Europe were expected to sacrifice Christian children at Passover, but that did not happen, and so a definition of a role has to be objective rather than a matter of opinion. Whether bosses abuse their secretaries is not a statistical matter but a matter of law and company policy concerning whether a secretary is a person whose job depends on pleasing the boss or whether she (usually it is a she) is an employee of the company entitled to the protections available to all employees. Customs in these matters may change, but they are one thing at one time and different at another time. The stability of roles depends not on opinion or custom but on whether there is a distinct activity that is going on, some function that satisfies the need of the organization or the larger community. As William Graham Sumner might have put it, customs can outlive their usefulness and will therefore die or, as a non-Sumner sociologist might say, there are sea changes in perception that result in a wholesale reconsideration of the definition of a role, as when African-Americans were, in the course of the Fifties through the Seventies, moved from being members of a caste to being members of an ethnic group.
Defining a social role is more an art than a science in that it requires picking out the particular salient characteristic that is generalizable to all those who are widely said to occupy that role while at the same time having that characteristic have consequences for the way the role will be carried out and so thereby provide a non-tautological proposition about the role. One of the most careful examples of this was provided centuries ago by Baruch Spinoza when he described a politician as someone who offered himself for election or selection to public office. That seems an unremarkable definition until one realizes that it was being offered in contrast to those aristocrats who assumed they would be granted political office simply because of the status and power they enjoyed in the society. Spinoza’s point was that politicians campaigned for office, and office was not something guaranteed to them, even if their prestige made them odds on favorites to win the posts. Yes, politicians may lie or cajole to get the support of voters or the mob, but they do so in light of the presumption that they have to win people over to them. So, by Spinoza’s definition, Pericles and Julius Caesar were politicians every bit as much as someone running for a seat in the Assembly of any number of American states. That is the nature of the beast whether or not one cares to dismiss politics as a corrupt or corrupting profession that draws to it people of inferior character. An accurate definition helps in avoiding cynicism because it shows what is about a role not just what one may idealize about what one would prefer a role to be, politicians all statesmen and wise.
Those who want to make the lives of prostitutes less dangerous have lobbied for that category of person to be redefined as “sex workers”. This is not just a cosmetic change that substitutes a less obnoxious word for a disdained way of life. Rather, it is to reconceptualize the role. Sex workers are people who have an occupation and so are not simply deviants and that occupation requires the handling of the bodies of clients with a certain amount of distance and professionalism, as is also the cases with nurses and dental technicians. Consequently, they deserve a living wage and such work benefits as health checkups and protection from police beatings or demands from the police for free services.
Not just the definition of the role but also what are noticed as the attendant characteristics of a role makes a difference. Some years ago I observed that lawyers were overpaid and overtrained for most of the activities that they engaged in. That included the drafting of wills and divorce documents and the incorporation of small businesses. That made sense because lawyers were a profession, which means that its practitioners have to be able to do a broad variety of things and handle emergency situations where general legal judgment is the basis for advising a client. But, as I and my coauthor argued, that left room open for paralegals to become important in the field because they could do rote things at considerably reduced cost, and that was to the advantage of both the legal firm and the client, and such has, in fact, become the case, a firm’s billing including the service of its paralegals at a far lesser rate than its attorneys.
In general, then, social roles change, whether those roles are defined in law or in custom, but not all that quickly, one easily enough able to recognize that Robert E. Lee could have taken over Dwight Eisenhower’s job after some familiarization with new weaponry. Tanks are cavalry and aircraft are artillery and radio reaches farther into the front lines than does telegraph. But organizing a military campaign does not change. The definition of roles change because of changing circumstances, though not all that much, given that killing of civilian populations has always been a war crime, even if God ordered Saul to do just that and Saul refused. New roles come into existence, so that the people who did differential equations for NASA and were called “computers” became “computer operators”, and what women are supposed to put up with in the way of courtship is still a matter of dispute all these years after Adam and Eve, but whatever is the temporary state of play in roles and the relations between roles constitutes much if not all of what we mean by social life.