Select Page

Playing in the Lifeworld

by | 3 November, 2018 | Article

 Written by Darcy O’Connor 


Meet Jenny. She is a human. She has some crucial biological features in common with roughly half the other humans. She lives on an island near the bottom of the world. On Tuesdays, she enjoys using a metal rod to hit a little white ball into some slightly bigger holes.

Clearly, Jenny has certain characteristics. Some of these are broad and shared by many others. These are things like age, sex, nationality, and occupation. Others are more distinguishing; her recreational preference for golf or perhaps her tendency to wear floral hats.

Regardless, each of her characteristics has associated expectations. Because she is a golf-player, Jenny is expected to play the role of the golf-player. Because she is Australian, Jenny is expected to play the role of the Australian. The role refers to the set of acceptable values and behaviours associated with that characteristic. As an Australian, Jenny ought to speak in a relaxed vernacular, proselytise a ‘fair go’ ideology, and align her behaviours with the countless others expected of her as an Australian. The same goes for her as a golf-player, a female, or a floral-hat-wearer; there is a defined set of behaviours that are deemed appropriate for each role.

Of course, there will never be perfect alignment between Jenny’s understanding of her role, and my understanding of her role. That is inevitable. What is important, however, is that social roles exist, and they are, to a large degree, mutually understood.

We are, then, actors. How we act at any moment is governed by the role we are playing and the tacit social expectations attached to that role. As far back as 1603, Shakespeare mused:

“All the worlds a stage,

and all the men and women are merely players;

they have their exits and their entrances,

and one man in his time plays many parts”


These days, Social Role Theory is by no means ground-breaking. We are predictable creatures and we are predictable because we follow social roles. Our predictability – which entails our ‘role-playingness’ – is engrained into everything from television ads to economic models.

What is perhaps more interesting than the idea that we play roles, is that two of our roles may be in conflict. Conflict occurs when we play two or more roles simultaneously, but they demand contradictory behaviours. In such cases, what is right becomes a much more cloudy affair.

I think there is a striking dissonance between two of the most widely-played roles.

On one hand, as economic actors, we are expected to pursue our self-interest. We are told the constituents of a good economy will surely be selfish; that the collective flourishes when individual utility maximises. As Adam Smith, the so-called father of economics, famously wrote ‘it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.’ This ideology is everywhere in the economic world. Its ubiquity is such that making a selfish economic decision does not unsettle one’s peace of mind. We are only, after all, acting according to our role. What we are doing is, in this sense, right.

On the other hand, the role we play as citizens dictates something quite opposite. As members of a self-governing society, we can’t blindly pursue our self-interest. Instead, we are expected to acknowledge and respond to the co-existing interests of our fellow citizens. Pursue your happiness so long is it doesn’t infringe on another’s ability to pursue theirs. This ideology manifests most clearly on a crowded bus or train. The good citizen, the one playing their citizen role well, is not absorbed in their own desire to sit and relax. Instead, they are aware of the other interests floating around them. They recognise that the elderly man will receive more discomfort standing up and so have more interest in sitting down. The good citizen offers their seat accordingly. We aren’t expected to be entirely selfless, but our ‘goodness’ is positively correlated with our selflessness; the less absorbed I am in my own world, the better person I am understood to be.

Jenny, among her various other skills, is great at illustrating this dichotomy.

She finds herself at the shops. She has perused the cheese section thoroughly and narrowed her shortlist to two options. Both goods are precisely the same in terms of size, weight, taste and any other factor important to cheese-related decisions. The only difference is one costs $3 and the other $5. Although she doesn’t like the taste of cheese, Jenny chooses the $5 option.

Jermaine, a friend of Jenny’s, observed this bizarre decision.

“Jenny, I know you don’t like cheese. Why are you buying it at all, let alone the more expensive one?”

“Well I thought because it was so expensive whoever made it must have worked very hard. They deserve some benefit.”

“You really shouldn’t be like that Jenny. If everyone were like you, whoever is selling the cheap cheese would go broke. Then everyone who buys cheese would have to pay more, and they might go broke too. With all the cheese-eaters broke the rest of us would suffer. You see, you really ought to just do what’s in your best interest. Everything works out best that way.”

“Gosh, I wouldn’t want to cause all that chaos! Thanks Jermaine.”

Jenny and Jermaine return the cheese and make their way to the carpark. Jenny spots an elderly man in the distance. He has dropped his wallet and is struggling to pick it up. With Jermaine’s wise words still reverberating in her mind, Jenny dashes over and snatches the wallet. She smiles proudly.

“What the heck Jenny, you can’t do that.”

“What do you mean? You just said things are best when I pursue my self-interest.”

“Well, yes, but only in your economic decisions. This man has interests just like you, he has things he wants to do with his day and his life. You need to recognise his interests are no less valuable than yours. Our society would descend into anarchy if we didn’t think about our fellow citizens. You wouldn’t want anarchy, would you?”

Confused, Jenny returns the wallet, goes home and lies down. She stares at the ceiling. The ceiling fan stares back.

“Oh, don’t look at me like that! They’re the ones being crazy, not me. They’ve told me contradictory things: to be selfish in economics, but selfless as a citizen. As if I can separate the two. As if my behaviour can be so fluid. As if my identity can be so circumstantial.”

Jenny’s angst is justifiable. Either she has found an inescapable role conflict, or cause for an identity crisis. The answer lies in the separability of her roles.

If they are inseparable, Jenny has a role conflict. She is playing the economic role simultaneously with her citizen role, yet the imperatives of the two are at odds. Assuming they both dictate behaviour with equal force, Jenny gets caught in limbo. Magnets of expectation pull her apart and there is no clear way forward.

If they are separable, Jenny’s sense of self is at stake. We understand ourselves in terms of our values and behaviours. What I do and what I value defines who I am. It arms me with a stable identity. But, roles destroy this stability. Jenny has been told that her values and behaviours should be the product of circumstance. In some scenarios, she’s expected to value and behave according to her self-interest. In others, the opposite is true. It’s as if each day she should leave the house with a quiver on her shoulder, each arrow a new identity she can take on. This transcends the economic/citizen role contradiction. It is an outcome of role playing in general. The player becomes a fluid thing – the shape they take a product of their environment. Identity erodes.

Either way the result is unclear. Jenny’s angst about this will remain. I do not know what to offer her. Her directions in economics contradict her directions as a citizen. Her capacity to play roles undermines her capacity for a consistent sense of self. It confuses me too, Jenny.


Darcy is a PPE student at St Lucia, and enjoys painting in his spare time.



Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

publish your work

Whether you're a seasoned writer, just looking to get some more experience before your major essays are due or a talented artist, we want you! Please consider contributing to our magazine and have your work published, both online and in our physical magazine.