Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

Table of Contents | Cover Page  |  Editors  |  Contributors  |  Introduction  |  Web Version


Comprehensive patterns of behavior and attitudes, constituting a strategy for coping with a recurrent set of situations (Turner 1990). A social role is played by different individuals and supplies a major basis for identifying and placing persons in a group, organization, or society. Roles consist of rights, duties, and expected behavior and give stability and structure to social situations.

Turner delineates four types of roles: (1) basic roles —such as gender and age roles—that are located in society rather than particular organizations; (2) structural status roles—such as occupational, family, minister, nun—that are attached to office or status in particular organizations; (3) functional group roles—such as mediator, leader, challenger—that are not formally designated or attached to group positions or offices but are recognized in the group culture; and (4) value roles—such as hero, traitor, heretic, saint—that embody values of the group. Each type of role involves expectations of behavior associated with individuals in the particular role.

Roles are not static entities; rather, role change is one characteristic on which roles vary. Role change is defined as change in the shared conception and operationalization of typical role performance and role boundaries. Roles can change in several ways. A new role can be created or an existing role can be dissolved; a role can change quantitatively by the addition or subtraction of duties, rights, or prestige associated with the role; and a role can change qualitatively by a change in the interpretation of its meaning. Because roles always have relational meaning to one or more other roles, change in one role always has repercussions on related roles; for example, change in the expectations for church ministers involves change in the roles of laity.

While role change deals with changes in the expectations associated with the role itself, role exit occurs when individuals who occupy given roles abandon them for new roles. Most of the social science literature on roles focuses upon socialization into new roles; however, beginning with Ebaugh's (1988) work on role exit, recent studies are taking into account both entry into roles and the process of leaving them. Role exit is the process of disengagement from a role that is central to one's self-identity and the reestablishment of an identity in a new role that takes into account one's ex-role. Being an "ex" is unique sociologically in that the expectations, norms, and identity of an ex-role relate not to what one is currently doing but to social expectations associated with the previous role. Because of "role residual," that is, elements of role identity that an individual carries over into a new role as well as memories and associations that significant others have of one's previous role identity, being an ex constitutes a unique role in itself.

In the past several decades, religious roles, both ministerial and lay, have changed significantly within many churches. The profound changes occurring within the clergy and religious orders of women in the Roman Catholic Church are one example of the impact of role change on religious institutions. In fact, the quantitative and qualitative changes in role expectations of Catholic priests have led to a severe clergy shortage (Schoenherr and Young 1993, Hoge et al. 1988) due to increased role exits of priests and fewer Catholic men entering seminaries. Likewise, the dramatic decline in numbers of young women entering Catholic convents, along with the numerous exits of Catholic nuns in the late 1960s and early 1970s, has led some researchers to predict substantial organizational changes (Neal 1990, Wittberg 1994, Nygren and Ukeritis 1993) and even the organizational demise (Ebaugh 1993) of women's religious orders.

Because social roles are part of the structural features of every organization, substantial role change affects and defines the health, viability, and future of all organizations. Analysis of religious organizations therefore inevitably involves the study of the stability and change in social roles of those who constitute the organization.

Helen Rose Ebaugh


H. R. Ebaugh, Becoming an Ex (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988)

H. R. Ebaugh, Women in the Vanishing Cloister (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1993)

D. R. Hoge et al., "Changing Age Distribution and Theological Attitudes of Catholic Priests," Sociological Analysis 49(1988):264-280

M. A. Neal, From Nuns to Sisters (Mystic, Conn.: Twenty-Third Publications, 1990)

D. Nygren and M. Ukeritis, The Future of Religious Orders in the United States (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1993)

R.A. Schoenherr and L. A. Young, Full Pews and Empty Altars (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993)

R. H. Turner, "Role," in International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences 13(1968):552-557

R. H. Turner, "Role Change," Annual Review of Sociology 16(1990):87-110

P. Wittberg, The Rise and Fall of Catholic Religious Orders (Albany: SUNY Press, 1994).

return to Encyclopedia Table of Contents

Hartford Institute for Religion Research   hirr@hartsem.edu
Hartford Seminary, 77 Sherman Street, Hartford, CT 06105  860-509-9500