Much current discussion of role-playing has occurred within the context of a protracted debate over the use of deception in experimental social psychology. Inevitably therefore, the following account of role-playing as a research tool involves some detailed comment on the ‘deception’ versus ‘honesty’ controversy But role-playing has a much longer history of use in the social sciences than as a substitute for deceit. It has been employed for decades in assessing personality, in business training and in psychotherapy (Ginsburg, 1978). 1 In this latter connection, role-playing was introduced to the United States as a therapeutic procedure by Moreno in the 1930s. His group therapy sessions were called ‘psycho-drama’, and in various forms they spread to the group dynamics movement which was developing in America in the 1950s. Current interest in encounter sessions and sensitivity training can be traced back to the impact of Moreno’s pioneering work in role-taking and role-enactment.
The focus of this chapter is on the use of role-playing as a technique of educational research. Role-playing is defined as participation in simulated social situations that are intended to throw light upon the role/rule contexts governing ‘real’ life social episodes. The present discussion aims to extend some of the ideas set out in Chapter 16 which dealt with account gathering and analysis. We begin by itemizing a number of role-playing methods that have been reported in the literature.
Various role-play methods have been identified by Hamilton (1976) and differentiated in terms of a passive-active distinction. Thus, an individual may role-play merely by reading a description of a social episode and filling in a questionnaire about it; on the other hand, a person may role-play by being required to improvise a characterization and perform it in front of an audience. This passive—active continuum, Hamilton notes, glosses over three important analytical distinctions.
First, the individual may be asked simply to imagine a situation or actually to perform it. Hamilton terms this an ‘imaginary-performed’ situation. Second, in connection with performed role-play, he distinguishes between structured and unstructured activities, the difference depending upon whether the individual is restricted by the experimenter to present forms or lines. This Hamilton calls a ‘scripted-improvised’ distinction. And third, the participant’s activities may be verbal responses, usually of the paper and pencil variety, or behavioural, involving something much more akin to acting. This distinction is termed ‘verbal-behavioural’. Turning next to the content of role-play, Hamilton distinguishes between relatively involving or uninvolving contents, that is, where a subject is required to act or to imagine herself in a situation or, alternatively, to react as she believes another person would in those circumstances, the basic issue here being what person the subject is supposed to portray. Furthermore, in connection with the role in which the person is placed, Hamilton differentiates between studies that assign the individual to the role of laboratory subject and those that place her in any other role. Finally, the content of the role-play is seen to include the context of the acted or the imagined performance, that is, the elaborateness