Academic journal article Career Development Quarterly

Role Exit Theory: Applications to Adult Women College Students

Academic journal article Career Development Quarterly

Role Exit Theory: Applications to Adult Women College Students

Article excerpt

This qualitative study examined the issues and events that led 221 women to an urban, commuter campus of 16,000 students located in the midwestern part of the United States. Specifically, role exit theory was used as a tool to explain why the majority of these women stated that their past experiences (identities) before enrollment played a major part in determining their choice of academic major and their level of involvement in campus activities. Practical applications of role exit theory for counselors include issues of role orientation and loss, values clarification, and grief counseling.

In contemporary society, individuals constantly wrestle with unique situations and life events that force them to think and rethink how they define themselves in their daily lives. New role definitions are emerging for adults, especially for women, and their identities change as a result (Huber, 1973). Accordingly, counselors are becoming increasingly interested in life role counseling as a means of assisting clients to cope with life changes (Super, 1990). This study applied role exit theory (Ebaugh, 1988) to the study of adult women students who have undergone a transition and, as a result, are enrolled in a public, urban university of roughly 16,000 students. Understanding the process these women are undergoing is a necessary step toward appreciating their position (Acker, Barry, & Esseveld, 1983) and designing life role counseling interventions.


Role exit theory offers a theoretical framework for considering the process of adult persons moving from one social position to another; moreover, this theory articulates how the existing adult developmental literature addresses this social reality. The term role exit was first introduced by Blau (1973). A role exit in adulthood refers to leaving behind a major role or incorporating a prior role into a new identity. Blau identified four types of exits: (a) an act of nature, such as the death of a role ,partner; (b) expulsion by a group or large collectivity, such as excommunication or banishment; (c) involuntary action, such as a person being fired or left by a partner; and (d) voluntary action, such as a person leaving a partner or initiating a career change.

Building on Blau's work, Ebaugh ( 1988) developed a process model to explain voluntary forms of exits. Ebaugh did not critique Blau's work, rather she provided the initial analysis of one form of role exit. Ebaugh contended that, regardless of the types of roles being departed, there are common variables that make role exit unique and definable as a social process. Ebaugh put forth a process that she viewed as being identifiable and generalizable across roles. Our research design built on these insights by analyzing the responses of those in our sample to their particular role transitions.

In keeping with this research tradition, we analyzed the text of the data according to the process of grounded theory (Charmaz, 1983) so that the responses were coded on the basis of emergent themes in the data. Following this tradition, our study stressed discovery and theory development rather than logical deductive reasoning. Data collection and analysis proceeded simultaneously (Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Miles & Huberman, 1984). Although a standing theory was being used, a major component of this research was the modification of the process. A grounded theory design was effectively incorporated for this type of approach (Strauss, 1987). Although a general model was presented, the processes and products of this research were shaped from the data rather than from preconceived, logically deduced frameworks (Glaser, 1978).


This study was limited to women because they account for the greatest proportion of growth in the population of college students over age 28, and there has been less research on the development of women (Ross, 1988). Adult students were arbitrarily identified as 28 years and older because this age has been used in other work (Gigliotti, 1991) and the greatest increase in student enrollment is predicted for this population (Gilkison & Drummond, 1988; Pirnot, 1987; Ross, 1988). …

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