Roles: Unfortunately Sometimes They Define Us and Limit What People Think We Can Do.

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Role theory assumes that a role defines us and how we are supposed to act to some degree. Roles also define how others are supposed to act toward us. Plus, we role-play as well as role-make. The difference for Goffman, and this is the important part, is his claim that actors first chose the role they feel like enacting. They chose the role from a variety of possibilities.

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It’s similar to going to a closet full of shirts. Goffman says that actors can choose from a variety of roles at hand. They enact the role using dramaturgical methods (impression management). If an actor is good at enacting the role, it is believable; people accept it.

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If the person is not good at enacting the role, the performance likely suffers.

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 Military Insignia and Social Expectations (Roles)

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Fitzsimmons Army Medical Center  1984


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When soldiers, Marines, sailors, and airmen encounter another service member, each of the individuals is guided by the insignia on the other’s uniform. A private is distinguished from a general. An officer from an enlisted soldier. A non-com from privates.

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My point, when a soldier is wearing a lower rank, they aren’t afforded much respect. Until a soldier becomes a sergeant, or a commissioned officer, they won’t get too much respect. Those ranks are mainly associated with younger-inexperienced soldiers. My story begins after I had sustained a spinal cord injury and was being held for observation at FAMC in Aurora, Colorado. I wasn’t a sergeant yet, so I wasn’t exactly afforded much respect.

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19th Special Forces

Here I was, coming from a special operations environment, reporting in at a military hospital environment. I erroneously assumed that my uniform would say enough about my motivation for wearing it. My uniform was spotless! My bearing belied my condition. In my mind, this injury was a temporary setback. Mentally I figured I would be back to spec ops duty in a matter of a short time. Mentally, I was still Special Forces. It doesn’t just  turn off. But I was ordered by the base sergeant major to tone it down for show. Roger that.

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Initially, I could have wondered the base almost at will, no one really kept track of the soldiers in our unit. We were “all over the map,” as each of us in the medical holding company waited for the paperwork to clear before any of us could be returned to our units or discharged. This could take a month, or it could take a year. It all depended on the speed of the paperwork. So I decided to go “job” hunting. Sitting around avoiding “details” would have driven me insane.

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I found a “job” at the orthopedic ward. This was the middle 1980s and since I had “attended” college, I had some computer skills. I had also passed two years of college ROTC and knew the structure of the military very well; so that was in my favor. The civilian manager was an older Hispanic guy; a really cool man. After he realized that I was free labor, he immediately “hired” me. Somehow we hit it off.

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At first the manager had me labeling radiology envelopes. I would hand-write each envelope labels before I stuffed them with the appropriate negatives. As far as I could tell, this had been how the Army had done this task for years. I knew there was a better way. I had come from a Special Forces environment; one in which thinking outside the box was ENCOURAGED. This was obvious.

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I soon found some thick rubber bands, cut them with some smaller, sharp scissors; and cut out each letter of the words I had been writing, rewriting, and re-rewriting. I glued them to a small piece of scrap wood and made a stamp. I used this with a stamp pad and was now able to quickly “stamp” each envelope. A process that used to take hours took me half an hour. I saved so much time, I started to use that computer.

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The manager soon had me using that computer for official business. I was scheduling clients and admitting them to their appointments. But soon after I thought I had it made on the shade, I suddenly encountered a brick wall. It seems as though a specialist rank in the army doesn’t command much respect. Here I was, waiting to go back to my unit. I had three years of college under my belt, but because I was only a specialist, wearing “the shield of shame” on my collar, I wasn’t really afforded much respect. This had to change! 

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US Army Specialist 4. E-4.

“The Shield of Shame”


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Field Uniform vs Hospital Whites


With that low rank , I decided to get rid of the camouflage look and dress in the Army white medical utility uniform.

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Not to mention, they were free! Each soldier would sign for three sets at-a-time. Turn some dirty ones in, check out some ironed and starched angel white uniforms. One morning, I just decided that I’d had enough. I plucked those rank insignias off my uniform and threw them in the bushes outside my barracks. Nothing more, nothing less. I still presented myself as a member of “staff.”

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Before long, I was running the clinic. The manager had trusted me to roam the clinic. I didn’t abuse the privilege, I “went with it.” After I plucked those insignia off of my collar and flung them in the bushes outside the barracks, we’d just see what would happen.

Before long, I was informally running the clinic. To make the most of the experience for my sociology training, I “moved around” freely. I worked hard to develop a trust in the clinic staff. And since I knew how to use the computer, I was also entrusted to order the clinic’s supplies.

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“Others” saw me in all aspects of the clinic: so I could “assist” with a cast. I could lead patients to their examination rooms. I could play host and schedule appointments. It was fun!

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I had spent a number of months at the base, and saw a number of doctors come and go through that clinic. The day-to-day scheduling was primarily a civilian endeavor. The bulk of their patients were civilian dependents; and retired, and their dependents. Imagine the stories these people had seen. World War II. Korea. Vietnam. I played a great host to these veterans.

Because I no longer wore any rank, I was getting treated in a neutral manner. I wasn’t an officer, but I wasn’t a “specialist.” Pretty soon, the pharmaceutical reps began to court my opinion on “things.” They weren’t sure who I was; or what my role was. But over time, they saw my calm command of the area and began treating me as a college intern; a civilian with no rank. I still wore the whites, but no rank. Name tag, check. Black low-quarters, check. Garrison cap, check. Starched whites, check.

The pharmaceutical reps began treating me to lunch. And since I had three years of college and a varied military experience, my demeanor was one of confidence and competence. I was addressed as, “Padilla.” No sir; no mister; no specialist. Just, “Padilla.” My best guess says these people must have thought I was a summer medical student intern. This was during the Reagan build up, so there were plenty of soldiers on the move.

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We rarely had an emergency, so the day an ambulance screamed into the emergency entrance, the new doctor barked at me to, “Get this man seventeen CCs of Thorazine, STAT!” I had no idea what that meant. Uh-oh! I couldn’t take my time to figure out what I need to do. This was an emergency and certainly no time for OJT. I had to fess up.

“Doctor, I have no clue what you just commanded me to do, sir.” The captain looked at me with a puzzled look. He seemed to be searching, trying to “make sense” of what was happening. He looked me over, thought for a second, and then put it all back on me.

“Padilla, who he hell are you?!”

“SIr, I’m a Specialist in the medical holding company.”

“PADILLA!”

“Sir?”

“Padilla, get the f**k out of my way! And by the way, you’re banned from my clinic. Don’t let me catch you in this building Padilla!”

Off he went with his Thorazine…

Off I went, banned from my little kingdom I’d created for myself.

As I saw it, I had a work ethic. I felt like I was contributing to something that I had helped build. And here I was, being ejected!

Oh well. This was the army and there wasn’t much I could do about it. For the rest of the summer, I spent my days “rehabilitating” at the pool and chilling. SONY had just come out with a WALKMAN and I had managed to get my hands on one. The games were about to begin somewhere else. My role had changed; again.

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 pete padilla real world sociology

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