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A Structural-Developmental Analysis of

Levels of Role Taldng in Middle Childhood

Robert L. Selman and Diane F. Byrne
Harvard University

and BYRNE, DIANE F . A Structural-Developmentdl Analysis of Levels

of Role Taking in Middle Childhood. CHILD DEVELOPMENT, 1974, 45, 803-806. 40 childrenages 4, 6, 8, and 10^were interviewed by standard and Piagetian clinical method on 2 sodomoral dilemmas. Each child's discussion of the perspectives of different characters in the
dilemma was analyzed according to a previously defined sequence of role-taking levels. The
high correlation of these levels with increasing age indicates that role taking as a concept is
amenable to a structural-developmental analysis.

The parallel structural development of

impersonal and interpersonal cognitions has
been posited by a number of theorists (Mead
1934; Piaget 1950). Piaget states: "There is
a fundamental identity between the interpersonal operations and the intraindividual operations so that they can be isolated only by abstraction from a totabty where the biological
and social factors of action constantly interact
with one another" (1967, p. 129).
In this paper we focus on one aspect of
interpersonal cognitionsocial role taJdng
and attempt to define its development according to an ontogenetic sequence of structures
similar in form to Piaget's cognitive operations.
Social role taking has a long-standing
tradition as a theoretical concept of basic importance to developmental and social psychology. The theoretical writings of George Herbert Mead (1934) and James Mark Baldwin
(1906) support the position that the unique
aspect of social cognition and judgment that
differentiates human from subhuman functioning is "role taking," the ability to understand
the self and others as subjects, to react to others
as like the self, and to react to the selfs behavior
from the other's point of view. The concept of
role taking also has roots in Piaget's theory of
cognitive development. Two of his central concepts relate directly to role taking: egocentrism,
which characterizes preoperational tibinldng, is
the inability to escape from one's own view of
the world; decentration, a characteristic of

operational thinking, is the ability to consider

multiple perspectives or aspects of a situation.
While these concepts are appbcable to the
impersonal domain, they also apply to the interpersonal sphere and point to development
in the ability to put oneself in another's place
and view the world through his eyes.
There have been two recent approaches
to the study of social role taldng stemrmng from
the Piagetian point of view that have influenced the present research. Feffer (1959,
1971) and Feffer and Gourevitch (1960)
equate social role taldng with the Piagetian
concept of social decentering and have developed a projective technique for assessing agerelated levels of the child's ability to decenter
in the social domain. Feffer has described a
series of formal levels of this ability: simple
refocusing, characterized by a lack of coordination between perspectives; consistent
elaboration, defined as a sequential coordination between perspectives; and change of
perspective, at which simultaneous coordination of perspectives is achieved.
A second important attempt to clarify the
role-taking concept through systematic empirical investigation is Flavell's (1968) study
of the development of children's ability to
make inferences about another's perceptual or
conceptual perspectives. Flavell has isolated
three crucial steps in the development of roletaldng ability. The first \s selfs recognition that
other can have cognitions about the self as well

This research was partially supported by a grant to the first author from the Spencer
Foundation. Authors' address: Harvard University, Graduate School of Education, Larsen Hall,
Appian Way, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138.
[Child Development, 1974, 45, 803-806. 1974 by the Society for Research in Child Development, Inc. All
rights reserved.]

804 Child Development

as about other extemal objects. The second
discovery that must be made is that the self is
not only an object for other, but also a subject.
The third achievement is the recognition that
both self and other can go on considering each
other's view of the other ad infinitum (p. 53).
The structural-developmental approach
to role taking, then, is the derivation of a sequence of developmental age-related and
logically related structures or forms that an individual displays in his understanding of
other's point of view. The concern is not with
content, not with accuracy of perception of
other or behavioral choice, but with the form
in which conceptions of others emerge.
While FeflFer has explored role taking
within the context of a projective story-telling
task and Flavell within social problem-solving
and communication tasks, in the present study
we have focused on role taking as it is used
within the context of moral dilemmas similar
to those developed by Kohlberg (1969), but
modified to be more appropriate for young
children. We constructed a series of four roletaking levels on the basis of (a) Feffer and
Flavell's analyses, (b) the previous research
of Selman (1971), and (c) developmental
principles of differentiation (distinguishing
perspectives) and integration (relating perspectives ). The levels thus derived were tested
on the experimental sample. A brief description of each level follows.^
Level 0:

Egocentric Role Taking

Distinguishing perspectives.This stage is

characterized by the child's inability to make
a distinction between a personal interpretation
of social action (either by self or other) and
what he considers the true or correct perspective. Therefore, although the child can differentiate self and other as entities, he does not
differentiate their points of view.
Relating perspectives.Just as the child
does not differentiate points of view, he does
not relate perspectives.
Level 1:

Subjective Role Taking

Distinguishing perspectives.At level 1

the child sees himself and other as actors with
potentially different interpretations of the same

social situation, largely determined by the

data they have at hand. He realizes that people feel differently or think differently because
they are in different situations or have different
Relating perspectives.^The child is still
unable to maintain his own perspective and
simultaneously put himself in the place of
others in attempting to judge their actions.
Nor can he judge his own actions from their
viewpoint. He has yet to see reciprocity between perspectives, to consider that his view
of other is influenced by his understanding of
other's view of him (level 2). He understands
the subjectivity of persons but does not understand that persons consider each other as subjects rather than only as social objects.
Level 2:

Self-reflective Role Taking

Distinguishing perspectives.The child

is now aware that people think or feel differently because each person has his own uniquely
ordered set of values or purposes.
Relating perspectives.A major development at level 2 is the ability to reflect on the
selfs behavior and motivation as seen from
outside the self, from the other's point of view.
The child recognizes that the other, too, can
put himself in the child's shoes, so the child is
able to anticipate other's reactions to his own
motives or purposes. However, these reflections do not occur simultaneously or mutually.
They only occur sequentially. The child cannot "get outside" the two-person situation and
view it from a third-person perspective.
Level 3:

Mutual Role Taking

Distinguishing perspectives.^The child

can now differentiate the selfs perspective
from the generalized perspective, the point of
view taken by some average member of a
group. In a dyadic situation he distinguishes
each party's point of view from that of a third
person. He can conceive of the concept of
"spectator" and maintain a disinterested point
of view.
Relating perspectives.The child at level
3 discovers that both self and other can consider each party's point of view simultaneously
and mutually. Each can put himself in the

1 Fuller descriptions of each level and illustrative examples appear in a manual prepared
by the authors (Selman & Byrne 1973).

Selman and Byrne 805

other's place and view himself from that vantage point before deciding how to react. In
addition, each can consider a situation from
the perspective of a third party who can also
assume each individual's point of view and
consider the relationships involved.

Level 2Self-reflecdve Role Taking

a) What does Holly think her father wiU
think of her if he finds out?
b) Does Holly think her father will understand why she dimbed the tree? Why is that?
Level 3Mutual Role Taking

Subjects.^The Ss were 40 middle-class
children, 10 each at ages 4, 6, 8, and 10. In
each age group, there were five males and five
Task.The Ss were given two openended dilemmas, each presented in the form of
a filmstrip. A sample dilemma with some standard probe questions is described below.
Holly is an 8-year-old girl who likes to
climb trees. She is the best tree climber in the
neighborhood. One day while climbing down
from a tall tree she falls oflF the bottom branch
but does not hurt herself. Her father sees her
fall. He is upset and asks her to promise not to
climb trees any more. Holly promises.
Later that day. Holly and her friends
meet Sean. Sean's kitten is caught up in a tree
and cannot get down. Something has to be
done right away or the kitten may fall. Holly is
the only one who climbs trees well enough to
reach the kitten and get it down, but she remembers her promise to her father.
The average interview time for each
dilemma was 20-25 min. At the end of the
filmstrip, each S was asked to retell the story
before questioning so that the E could be assured that any difficulties were not simply due
to faulty memory. Few Ss had difficulty in retelling the story. If difficulty was encountered,
the dilemma was repeated. Interviews were
taped and transcribed for scoring purposes.
Standard role-taking questions focused on the
assessment of each role-taking level. For example:
Level 1Subjective Role Taking
a) Does Holly know how Sean feels about
the kitten? Why?
b) Does Sean know why Holly cannot decide whether or not to climb tbe tree? Why or why
c) Why might Sean think Holly will not
climb the tree if Holly does not tell him about her

a) What does Holly think most people

would do in this situation?
b) If Holly and her father discussed this
situation, what might they decide together? Why
is that?
c) Do you know what the Golden Rule is
[explain if child says no]? What would the Golden
Rule say to do in this situation? Why?

In addition, open-ended discussion in the

Piagetian tradition (the Piagetian clinical
method) and role-playing techniques were
used further to assess level of role taking.
Green's index of reproducibility indicated
that questions comprehended at each level
formed a Guttman scale on both tasks (/ = .88
and .84, respectively). Subjects were scored
at the highest level of role taking clearly exhibited. For example, if a S comprehended a
level 3 question or used reasoning indicative
of the level 3 structure in the open-ended part
of the interview, he was scored at level 3.
Results and Discussion
The correlation between highest level of
role taking attained in each of the measures
was .93. Therefore, to define a subject's highest level, a clinical assessment was made over
both situations to decide if the concept was
clearly evident. Percentage perfect agreement
on highest level attained between trained
scorers was .96; percentage one level apart was
.04. Differences were resolved upon discussion.
The percentage perfect agreement across 20
randomly selected protocols between a trained
and an untrained scorer, who used the roletaldng scoring manual without theoretical or
experiential background, was .78.
Analysis indicated a significant productmoment coefficient of correlation of role-taking
level to age, f(40)=.80; p <.OO1. No significant sex differences were found. Table 1 presents the percentage of Ss at each role-taldng
level by age.
The results of this study support our contention that social role taking can be conc^tu-

S06 Child Development


{N = 10 PER AGE GROtrp)



Age 4

Age 6

Age 8

Age 10










populations to assess the degree to which they

conform to the requirements of a true developmental sequence. Second, they may be examined in relation to development in the impersonal sphere. The egocntrism of stage 0
may have its counterpart in preoperational
thought, the decentering of levels 1 and 2 may
correspond to concrete operational ability, and
the mutuality and infinite-regress character of
level 3 might parallel the emergence of formal
operations in the impersonal sphere.

ally deflned in structural terms. The sequence

of structures, which was constructed on the
basis of past theory and research, was found to
emerge empirically in an age-related fashion.
The age norms closely parallel those reported
by Feffer for his system of levels. At our level
0, which is predominant among the 4-yepr-olds,
there is no evidence of differentiation and
therefore no coordination of perspectives. At
level 1, which was present in most 6-year-olds'
thinking, although a distinction is made between perspectives, Ss failed to coordinate
them. This level is parallel to Feffer's level of
simple refocusing, in evidence at age 6, in
which S manages to change perspective but
without maintaining consistency. Our level 2
was the predominant emergent structure of
the 8-year-olds. Perspectives at this level are
taken in a sequential manner paralleling Feffer's level of consistent elaboration, also reaching a peak at ages 7 and 8. At our level 3,
which was in evidence in the 8- and 10-yearold groups, perspectives are coordinated
simultaneously, as in Feffer's level of change
of perspective, beginning to emerge at age 9.
The implication of this research is that roletaldng structures can be identified within the
context of moral dilemmas as well as in other
interpersonal contexts and that the structures
are similar in form and sequence to those described in other areas of interpersonal functioning.
There are several possible lines of future
research that might clarify the nature of the
sequence of structures we have defined. A first
line of research is the examination of the
structures in longitudinal studies over different

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