New research shows what developing countries can teach about role boundaries

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New research from York University’s Schulich School of Business suggests that our understanding of how people manage the multiple roles in their life is much more complex than we originally thought.

The findings are contained in the paper, “Can I sell you avocadoes and talk to you about contraception? Well it depends which comes first: anchor roles and asymmetric boundaries,” which is slated for publication in Academy of Management Journal. The paper is co-authored by Geoffrey Kistruck, professor and RBC Chair in Social Innovation and Impact at Schulich, together with Patrick Shulist, Miguel Rivera Santos and Winnie Nguni.

Geoffrey Kistruck
Geoffrey Kistruck

Individuals wear many hats in their day-to-day lives; a manager of a company can also be a mother, as well as a marathon runner. Prior research examining how people choose to balance these multiple roles has generally predicted the following: the more different the roles are in terms of their associated behaviors, the more likely they are to keep them separate. Comparatively, when two or more roles are fairly similar, individuals are more likely to integrate them.

However, the bulk of such research is based on developed countries. Within developing countries, both time and money are typically scarcer, and individuals tend to rely upon self-employment as their primary source of income. Furthermore, people living in such contexts often do so in small, tightly knit communities where members are expected to volunteer their time to make up for the lack of publicly available services, and everyone is very familiar with the multiple hats that everyone else wears. In such settings would we still expect very different roles to be kept separate, or are individuals more likely to integrate them?

To address this question, the researchers collected data from 73 people within Tanzania, whereby each individual possessed both a self-employment work role and a community volunteer role providing family planning counselling. Their findings suggested that whether or not the roles remained separate or were integrated was not straightforward, but rather depended on the characteristics of the “anchor role” – the role that set the stage for the specific social interaction. When anchored in their community role, they were very careful not to mix in business activities. However, when anchored in their work role, they very freely brought up family planning counselling.

Why this asymmetry in role boundary? According to the researchers, when the social interaction was anchored in their work role, the expectations for how to behave were very simple and straightforward – which left plenty of opportunity and flexibility for also wearing their community “hat.” However, when anchored in their more complex and constrained family planning role, the thought of also introducing activities associated with “work” was perceived as highly conflicting and confusing.

“Such findings have implications not only for our understanding of role boundaries within developing countries, but also other role pairings in developed country settings,” says Kistruck. “Our prior expectation that roles that have very different behavioral expectations will always be kept separate was incomplete – it depends on whether or not the role that comes first provides more or less leeway for integrating other roles.”