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Expressive roles and task roles, also known as instrumental roles, describe two ways of participating in social relationships. People in expressive roles tend to pay attention to how everyone is getting along, managing conflict, soothing hurt feelings, encouraging good humor, and take care of things that contribute to one's feelings within the social group. People in task roles, on the other hand, pay more attention to achieving whatever goals are important to the social group, like earning money to provide resources for survival, for example. Sociologists believe that both roles are required for small social groups to function properly and that each provides a form of leadership: functional and social.
Parsons's Domestic Division of Labor
How sociologists understand expressive roles and task roles today is rooted in Talcott Parsons' development of them as concepts within his formulation of the domestic division of labor. Parsons was a mid-century American sociologist, and his theory of the domestic division of labor reflects gender role biases that proliferated at that time and that are often considered "traditional," though there's scant factual evidence to back up this assumption.
Parsons is known for popularizing the structural functionalist perspective within sociology, and his description of expressive and task roles fits within that framework. In his view, assuming heteronormative and patriarchally organized nuclear family unit, Parsons framed the man/husband as fulfilling the instrumental role by working outside the home to provide the money required to support the family. The father, in this sense, is instrumental or task-oriented --he accomplishes a specific task (earning money) that is required for the family unit to function.
In this model, the woman/wife plays a complementary expressive role by serving as the caregiver for the family. In this role, she is responsible for the primary socialization of the children and provides morale and cohesion for the group through emotional support and social instruction.
A Broader Understanding and Application
Parsons' conceptualization of expressive and task roles was limited by stereotypical ideas about gender, heterosexual relationships, and unrealistic expectations for family organization and structure, however, freed of these ideological constraints, these concepts have value and are usefully applied to understanding social groups today.
If you think about your own life and relationships, you can probably see that some people clearly embrace the expectations of either expressive or task roles, while others might do both. You might even notice that you and others around you seem to move between these different roles depending on where they are, what they are doing, and who they are doing it with.
People can be seen to be playing these roles in all small social groups, not just families. This can be observed within friend groups, households that are not composed of family members, sports teams or clubs, and even among colleagues in a workplace setting. Regardless of the setting, one will see people of all genders playing both roles at various times.
Updated by Nicki Lisa Cole, Ph.D.