Role conflict is a special form of social conflict that takes place when one is forced to take on two different and incompatible roles at the same time. Consider the example of a doctor who is himself a patient, or who must decide whether he should be present for his daughter's birthday party (in his role as "father") or attend an ailing patient (as "doctor"). (Also compare the psychological concept of cognitive dissonance.)
Often, two or more roles collide in certain situations. Take for example a father who is the coach of his son’s baseball team. The man takes on both the role of father and coach. If the boy makes a bad play in the game a father would be inclined to support and comfort his son, but a coach would be inclined to show the boy exactly what he did wrong. This collision represents role conflict where two roles in an individual's role set cannot cooperate in a specific social situation.
In the functionalist conception, role is one of the important ways in which individual activity is socially regulated: roles create regular patterns of behaviour and thus a measure of predictability, which not only allows individuals to function effectively because they know what to expect of others, but also makes it possible for the sociologist to make generalisations about society. Collectively, a group of interlocking roles creates a social institution: the institution of law, for example, can be seen as the combination of many roles, including "police officer", "judge", "criminal", and "victim".
Roles, in this conception, are created by society as a whole, are relatively inflexible, are more-or-less universally agreed upon, and individuals simply take their designated roles on and attempt to fulfil them as best they can. Although it is recognised that different roles interact ("teacher" and "student"), and that roles are usually defined in relation to other roles ("doctor" and "patient", or "parent" and "child"), the functionalist approach has great difficulty in accounting for variability and flexibility of roles, and finds it difficult to account for the vast differences in the way that individuals conceive different roles. Taken to extremes, the functionalist approach results in "role" becoming a set of static, semi-global expectations laid down by a unified, amorphous society: as simply prescriptions for correct behaviour. The distinction between "role" and norm and culture thus becomes sterile.
Although the classic functionalist approach to "role" is no longer regarded as an especially useful tool in the modern sociologist's approach to understanding societies, it remains a fundamental concept which is still taught in most introductory courses and is still regarded as important, particularly so when considering relatively homogeneous, united societies like the middle-class post-war USA that gave birth to it.
More broadly, "role", in the sense created by society, is a concept that has crossed over from academic discourse into popular use. It has become commonplace to speak of particular "roles" as if they were indeed fixed, agreed on by all, and uncontroversial: "the role of the teacher" or "a parent's role", for example. Notice that this everyday usage nearly always employs "role" in a normative way, to imply that "this is the proper behaviour" for a teacher or a parent, or even for an entire institution such as the government.
People in modern, high-income countries juggle many responsibilities demanded by their various statuses and roles. As most mothers can testify both parenting and working outside the home are physically and emotionally draining. Sociologists thus recognize role conflict as conflict among the roles corresponding to two or more statuses (Macionis 90).
Even the roles linked to a single status can make competing demands on us. A plant supervisor may enjoy being friendly with workers. At the same time, however distance needed to evaluate his staff (Macionis 90).
Role conflict is different from role strain - a tension among the roles connected to a single status.
As a consequence, there exist opportunities for role conflict as the various roles interact with one another. Other types of role conflict occur when an individual receives inconsistent demands from another person; for example, he is asked' to serve on several time-consuming committees at the same time that he is urged to get out more production in his work unit. Another kind of role strain takes place when the individual finds that he is expected to meet the opposing demands of two or more separate members of the organization. Such a case would be that of a worker who finds himself pressured by his boss to improve the quality of his work while his work group wants more production in order to receive a higher bonus share.
These and other varieties of role conflict tend to increase an individual's anxiety and frustration. Sometimes they motivate him to do more and better work. Other times they can lead to frustration and reduced efficiency.