Version classiqueVersion mobile

A Quarter-Century of Normalization and Social Role Valorization

Robert J. Flynn
Raymond Lemay

Part 2: Historical Evolution of Normalization and Social Role Valorization Theory

5. An overview of Social Role Valorization1

Susan Thomas et Wolf Wolfensberger

Texte intégral


  • 1 This chapter has incorporated not only the presentation in Ottawa in May 1994, but also some SRV th (...)

1In this chapter, we will present an overview of Social Role Valorization (SRV), including its major implications and its rationales. However, readers should note that this paper does not purport to be the kind of scholarly literature review that would support the various points made herein. That kind of review would require a different context—and would probably constitute something like a PhD dissertation, given the number of references in the literature that do support the claims and action implications of S.R.V. For instance, there is a very substantial body of literature on social roles, role expectancies, and role performance that has been and is being developed without any relationship to SRV (as covered by Raymond Lemay in chapter 10), and much of it prior to the formulation of SRV. There are easily over a thousand studies in the social science literature on the power of role expectancies to elicit the expected performance, and role expectancies play a major part in Social Role Valorization theory. Similarly, there must be a thousand or more studies that bear on the power of imitation and modeling to affect behavior. The validity of this literature and research does not depend on the validity of SRV. But what SRV has done is to apply the knowledge generated by this body of study and theory to the plight of societally devalued people, in a unifying fashion apparently not done before.

2Readers who are interested in searching the literature for works that support or contradict Social Role Valorization might consult pages 129-130 in Wolfensberger (1998), where he lists the numerous topic areas in which one can find research relevant to Social Role Valorization.

3As was explained in an earlier chapter by Wolfensberger in this book, Social Role Valorization (Wolfensberger, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1991a, 1991b, 1991c, 1991 d, 1992,1998) grew out of his formulation of the principle of Normalization (Wolfensberger, 1972), which in turn had been based on the Scandinavian formulations, and especially that of Nirje (1969). Because the phrase Social Role Valorization is a mouthful, people usually abbreviate it to SRV, or, in French, Valorisation des Rôles Sociaux (VRS). In Italian, the term is Valorizzazione del Ruolo Sociale (also VRS). In German, Aufwertung or Bewertung der sozialen Rollen was used briefly, and now it is called Valorisation sozialer Rollen (VSR). The Norwegian term is Verdsetjing av Sosial Rolle (VSR). In Icelandic, Gildisaukandi Félagslegt Hlutverk (GFH) has been used. And in Welsh, the term is Faloreiddio Rôl Gymdeithasol, or FRG.

  • 2 Since this presentation was made in May 1994, there has been further conceptual development in SRV, (...)

4The definition of SRV between 1995 and 1998 was “the application of what science has to tell us about the enablement, establishment, enhancement, maintenance and/or defence of valued social roles for people.”2 This very parsimonious definition implies a wealth of action strategies, as will be explained further below. Also, readers who are familiar with earlier definitions of Normalization and of SRV will note four important differences between those definitions and this one.

  1. The definition makes no reference to devalued people because the measures that can craft valued roles for people would be the same regardless of who those people are.

  2. The definition refers to “the science of” how to enhance people’s social roles, which means SRV pulls together what is known from the world of fact, experience, and empirical research that is relevant to role-crafting.

  3. The definition no longer includes the phrase “culturally valued means,” because the use of culturally valued means is implied in what is known from social science to enhance people’s roles. (Roles are less likely to be enhanced if the means employed are not consistent with what is culturally valued.)

  4. The definition no longer includes the phrase “as much as possible” for two reasons. (a) In part, the phrase refers to decisions that are value-laden, ideological, and therefore not empirical in nature (e.g., about how much SRV to pursue for any person or group, or how much SRV knowledge to employ). (b) It also refers to the limits that may be imposed by various external constraints, such as insufficient funds, lack of commitment by responsible servers, what the laws mandate or permit, and so forth. These things are real; they do often constrain what would theoretically be possible, but they do not affect what empiricism can tell us is known to work, and to be doable, for people.

5SRV proposes that people who hold valued roles in society are more apt than people in devalued roles to be accorded “the good things of life” by their society. Consequently, if people who are devalued by their society, or who are at risk of being devalued, are to be given the good things of life, then they should be helped to as much as possible fill roles that are highly valued in society. Otherwise, they will probably be very badly treated. (All this will be explained in much more detail later.)


6Because the concept of social roles is so central to SRV, it is important to first clarify what social roles are, and, in doing so, we will also clarify what social roles are not—at least, not within SRV. Six such clarifications follow.


7A first clarification is that the term “social role” means a combination of behaviors, privileges, duties, and responsibilities that is socially defined, is widely understood and recognized within a society, and is characteristic or expected of a person occupying a particular position within a social system. The responsibility or duty elements of a role might be thought of as “you must” or “you should” or “you shall not” types of expectancies. For instance, in our society it is expected that parents should rear and take care of any children they bring into the world, and not mistreat them. Similarly, it is expected that an employee should carry out the duties of a job, obey the dictates of the employer who pays the worker’s salary, and not loaf or steal from employers. In contrast, the privileges of a role might be thought of as “you may” or “you are permitted” types of expectancies. For instance, a person in the sick role is permitted to stay home from school or work. A grandparent may (but need not) spoil the grandchildren a bit. And so on.

8It thus seems that all elements of a role can be defined as being aspects of expectancies of one type or another held by both perceivers and the person in the role, that is, the person incumbent in the role is expected to do, or not do, this or that. People who violate the expectancies of a role are not apt to be confirmed in that role by others, and people who meet, or fill, the expectancies of a role will tend to be confirmed or even legitimized in that role by others. (And some roles do require the legitimization of others, in order for an aspirant to the role to fill it and to be perceived as filling it.) When a person is perceived—at least in a general way—to live up to the expectancies associated with a particular role, we say that the person is carrying out, playing, or filling that role.


9A second clarification, also addressed in a separate chapter by Raymond Lemay (chapter 10), is that the term “role” has several connotations, and one of the most problematic is the idea of an artificial character, such as one might play on a stage. In SRV, we are most certainly not talking about artificial identities that a person consciously and briefly puts on and off, and “plays,” but that have no relation to the person’s “real” identity. Rather, we can say that for all practical purposes, many of the roles that a person fills in life, especially the major ones and in their aggregate, become that person’s identity; or, put another way, people generally become the social roles that they fill. Thus, roles are not something that people simply step in and out of, or shed like their clothes, but they become an integral part of their identity in the eyes of others—and to a very large degree also to themselves. For instance, a woman does not simply “play” the role of wife and mother for 20-plus years; she actually becomes a wife and mother, and fulfills the role elements that are part of this. One does not merely play the role of a physician, but one actually becomes a physician. And so on.

10This is certainly the case with those social roles that a person assumes voluntarily, and perhaps with great eagerness, such as those of husband and wife. But it can even be the case with those roles that are reluctantly assumed, or that are even forced on a person. For instance, one may not want to be an assembly-line worker, and might prefer some other career, but if one holds this kind of job for long, one’s identity probably will eventually become that of a blue-collar assembly-line worker, and will be shaped by the exigencies of that role. Similarly, even if a person does not want to be seen and treated in the role of a menace, the person is nonetheless very apt to become one if enough other people give that person convincing, strong, and consistent role cues and expectations that he or she is, indeed, a social threat.


11A third clarification is that there is a continuum of social valuation of different roles, ranging from extremely devalued to extremely valued. Some roles that are very devalued are those of subhuman, social menace, and garbage picker. Some roles that are very positively valued are those of president, scholar, and champion athlete. Yet other roles probably fall somewhere in between these two extremes, such as those of voter, neighbor, and garage mechanic.

12Of course, individuals may attribute a different value to specific social roles than does their society. For instance, a particular individual may devalue the role of president or other national government official, but the majority of that person’s society may still value such roles highly. Similarly, a certain individual may place high personal value on the role of idler or atheist, but that individual’s society may devalue such roles. However, there tends to be a good deal of concordance between the value that individuals attribute to social roles and the value that their society as a whole attributes to those same roles, in good part because individuals’ perceptions and values are shaped by their social context.

13In later sections, we will elaborate more on some very devalued roles into which devalued people get cast, and some roles that are positively valued, at least in our contemporary Western societies.


14A fourth clarification is that most roles can be seen to fall into certain broad domains (see Table 5.1).

15For instance, there are positive roles in the domain of social relationships, such as husband or wife, mother or father, daughter or son, brother or sister, grandchild, grandparent, acquaintance, friend, best friend, fiancé. Negatively valued roles in the relationship domain include orphan, “old maid,” and “black sheep of the family.” These are not artificial characters that people “play,” but rather, relational identities, commitments, social functions, or positions that people fill, make uniquely their own, and/or have forced upon them. For instance, certain behaviors are expected of grandparents, and certain privileges and responsibilities are accorded to them. By and large, most grandparents will meet these expectations, though they will do so in ways that have a great deal of individual variation to them. Similarly, the “black sheep” of any family is apt to be talked about and treated in much the same way across families, though the individual family members in this role may have different personalities and do different things that merit them this dubious distinction.



16There are also positive social roles in the domain of work, such as employee, labor union member, small-business owner, stockholder, chief executive officer, board member. There are also more specific work roles, such as janitor, registered nurse, cancer researcher, film director, telephone repairman, secretary, bank teller, car salesman, plumber, mechanic, letter carrier, and so on. Negatively valued social roles in the domain of work include idler, loafer, ne’er-do-well, beggar, and union-buster or “scab.” There are roles related to the domain of education, such as pupil, peer tutor, teacher, outstanding student in a subject area, and school athletic team star. Devalued roles in this domain include dunce, scatterbrain, and “special class” student.

17Positive roles in the domain of recreation and leisure include athlete, jogger, swimmer, bridge-player, chess master, painter, and so on. Some such roles are based on organizational and associational membership, such as member of a card club or member of a sports fan club. Negatively valued roles in this domain include oaf, klutz, sore loser, and bad sport.

18There are positive roles related to what one might broadly call the domain of public life, including those of citizen, activist, voter, licensed automobile driver, village clerk, elected official (such as member of a local council), and taxpayer. Negatively valued roles in this domain include foreigner, prisoner, recipient of public welfare, shoplifter.

19And there are positive roles related to the domain of higher-order beliefs, worldviews, and religious life, such as philosopher, prophet, pastor, minister, deacon, choir member, secretary to the altar society, cantor, sexton, and so on. Negatively valued roles include atheist, heretic, backslider, and lost soul.

20Of course, these role domains may not be so clearly differentiated in a person’s life. For instance, to one person, the major work role may be the same as a role related to religion, as in the case of a parish priest. For another person, a recreation-related role may become the major or dominant work role (as in the case of a champion athlete whose entire time is devoted to getting in shape for a major competition, or teaching others to do so), and the person’s recreation thus displaces, or becomes, his or her work.

21Also, the role domains that we have reviewed are by no means exhaustive, and the specific roles in them are only a small sampling of the many social roles that there are in society and life. In fact, social roles are so much a part of human life that, like fish with water, we take them for granted and do not even recognize that we are filling them. For instance, in the course of a day, one woman may fill the roles of wife, mother, secretary, daughter, leader of a Girl Scout troop, bank customer, coach, good neighbor, and probably yet others. A child may fill the roles of son or daughter, brother or sister, student, athlete, Girl Scout or Boy Scout, acolyte, and perhaps a role related to the upkeep of the family home.


22A fifth clarification is that different roles are of different widths (Wolfensberger, 1991a, 1992). That is, some roles are narrow and are only apparent at very specific times and places, while others are very broad, perhaps controlling—or at least affecting—much of a person’s life (Wolfensberger, 1992). An example of a role that is rarely anything but very narrow is that of bank customer. An example of a role with a broad width is that of husband or wife, or full-time student. However, and interestingly, the width of a role is not necessarily or entirely inherent in the role, and it can change. Two features seem to be the largest determiners—at least in contemporary Western societies—of how broad a particular role is in a person’s life.

231. The first determinant is how much of a person’s life is occupied in and by a role. The more a person’s time is taken up by the role, then the more broad in that person’s life (and the more life-defining) that particular social role is apt to be. For example, if one’s work role occupies a great deal of one’s day, it tends to be broadly determinative of one’s life and identity in Western society. Or, contrast the role of being a hospital patient with the role of being a dentist’s patient or an optometrist’s. The first is apt to be very life-defining, the others are not. This is because the hospital patient actually resides in a hospital, clinic, or nursing home; is very much surrounded by other patients, and by medical and medically imaged workers, such as doctors, nurses, and therapists; is dressed in hospital garb or lounges around all day in pajamas and bathrobe; gets classified as “chronic” or “acute”; and has to follow hospital schedules and routines. In contrast, the dentist’s patient does not reside in the dentist’s office; is only treated as apatient for a few hours at a time together with very few other patients, perhaps a few times a year; and does not have his or her appearance, activities, associates, and companions all determined by the act of getting dental care.

242. The second determinant seems to be how many other normative or even valued roles a person has. The fewer valued roles a person fills, the broader—and therefore the more life-defining—will become those roles that the person does hold, including devalued ones. Conversely, the more valued roles a person holds, the narrower—and the less life-defining—is any particular one of them apt to be, including any devalued roles that the person also fills. Another way of saying this is that the more positive role elements there are in a person’s life, the less will devalued roles invade and take over, and the less powerful they will become in that person’s life. This reality means that the greater the number of positive roles a person holds, and the greater the number of positive functions a person plays, the less overpowering will be any negative roles into which that person is also cast. People who hold mostly valued roles, and one or a few devalued roles, may still be able to maintain a valued life because the power of the greater number of valued roles outweighs that of the smaller number of negative ones. People who hold mostly devalued roles, but one or a few valued ones, will have their lives defined and shaped by the mixture of both such roles. But a person who holds no valued roles at all is apt to have his or her life defined and shaped for the worse by that fact.

25Thus, for instance, a man who fills the valued roles of father, businessman, church deacon, officer in a men’s club, and local politician—and who is also cast into the dying role—is apt to continue to be seen in, and to fill most of, his valued roles even as he is also seen to be dying. In other words, for such a person, the dying role will have much less of an identity-defining impact. In contrast, for a person who has few or perhaps no valued roles, and who is also now pronounced to be dying, the dying role is apt to become very broad and identity-defining, and to even control or determine just about everything that happens to that person. These facts have much bearing on the so-called “conservatism corollary” of SRV, to be explained later.


26A sixth clarification is that, in at least certain circumstances, a person may be perceived as the incumbent of a role even when that person does not fill all the role requirements or expectations. For instance, an adult woman may be cast into the child role if she has childish speech and childlike gestures and mannerisms, even if she is mature in most other ways. A person may get cast into a role simply for looking menacing, and for using violently aggressive speech, even if the person never hurts, or even tries to hurt, another soul. A person who goes through the marriage ceremony and shares a dwelling with his or her spouse will be cast in the role of husband or wife, even if that person fails miserably at those things expected of a spouse, such as faithfulness, child rearing, financial and other support, and so on.

27There seem to be three conditions especially under which a person will be seen as an incumbent of a role even though the person fills that role only partially.

28One is when the perceivers are already disposed to view the person in that role and are therefore prepared to interpret all sorts of behavior by the person as confirming their role expectancies. For instance, if an observer believes that “those kind of people” tend to be menaces, then the observer may cast a particular person who is “one of them” into the menace role just on the basis of a furtive glance, a baleful eye, or a forceful gesture.

29A second condition is when the person has gone through some public ritual of entry into the role. Examples are marriage ceremonies, public election and swearing-in to office, registration for school or college, job interview, and filling out of new employee forms. The public ceremony casts the person into the role in the eyes of observers, and even if the person subsequently fails to meet the requirements or expectations of the role, having gone through the ceremony may still be enough to keep the person in that role.

30A third condition is when the person actually meets at least some of the expectations attached to a role, even if these are not sufficient to role success. For instance, many youths who attend college hardly go to class, but they are nonetheless seen as college students because they have registered, paid their tuition, live in university dormitories, and are of college age.

31This entire point has implications both for preventing people who are devalued or at risk from being cast into devalued roles, as well as for helping them be cast into valued ones, even if they cannot meet all the requirements of a specific valued role.


32Having reviewed six clarifications of social roles, we will now present five basic premises that are crucial to understanding issues of role valuation, and hence to SRV theory overall.


33One premise is that because human perceptual processes are by their very nature evaluative, humans regard each other in an evaluative fashion. Everything we perceive by any of our senses, on either a conscious or unconscious level, is judged either positively or negatively. Even preverbal infants may howl upon perceiving something that their perceptual/evaluative system has informed them to be unpleasant or potentially threatening. For instance, they may scream when a parent leaves the room, when strangers appear, or when a gruesome face is shown them. In other words, it appears that there is no such thing as sensation that is “pure” and isolated, as psychologists once believed. They once thought that sensory data registered in the brain before they were interconnected with whatever already existed there, including memory, knowledge, meanings, values, interpretation, and so on. However, it is now believed that sensation is really part of a feedback process whereby preexisting content in the brain is intermingled with, and added to, sensory inputs as they come in, thereby instantaneously transforming these inputs and giving them meaning. Judgments as to whether a stimulus might be good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant, are made so rapidly that inputs deemed negative can even be repressed, so that a person will deny that he or she saw or heard something that was in fact witnessed, and that did enter the brain and its memory.

34Thus, sensation cannot be factored out of perception, and perception involves evaluation. Therefore, there is no such thing as “pure” or value-free or neutral perception. However, there is much denial and repression of the reality that such value judgments take place.

35What this means to SRV is that because people are perceived by others, they, too, get evaluated positively or negatively by their perceivers as do objects or events. In fact, some scholars (e.g., Freedman, Carlsmith, & Sears, 1970) have concluded that evaluation appears to be the main component in perceptions of people. As Freedman et al. (1970) put it: “Once we place someone on this dimension (good-bad), we never add much else to our impression of him. A favorable or unfavorable impression in one context at one meeting extends to all other situations and to other, seemingly related, characteristics” (p. 48).

36When perceivers attribute low or negative value to a person or group, we refer to this as social devaluation. This means that the people at issue are judged as being of lesser value, lesser worth—either lesser than the perceiver, and/or lesser than certain other persons. However, the terms “valued” and “devalued” must always be understood in relation to a referent person or group that does the valuing or devaluing. In other words, within the boundaries of SRV, one cannot speak of people being intrinsically valued or devalued, but only valued or devalued by, and in reference to, others. Thus, social devaluation is something that is done to another person by a perceiver; it is not something that is inherent in the person perceived.


37A second premise underlying SRV is that the above-described process of social valuation can range all the way from the person-to-person level to that of class-to-class. In other words, one individual may devalue one other person, often for such idiosyncratic reasons that the same person would not be devalued by others, or not for the same reason. At the other end, an entire class of people—even a whole nation—may devalue an entire other class, or type, of people, and possibly for just one single reason. And in-between these two ends, there can be devaluation of specific groups or classes by a single individual, and devaluation of specific individuals by an entire group or class. These possibilities are depicted in Table 5.2.





38On the individual-to-individual level, one family member may devalue another family member, a person may devalue someone who once inflicted a real or imaginary slight to him/her, someone may devalue someone else who habitually smells of garlic, and so on. On the individual-to-group level, one person may despise Catholics, another may feel contempt for those with leftist political views, another may consider vacuous rich people to be of low value, and so on, though these devalued groups may be held in high esteem by other persons. On the group-to-individual level, an entire class of rich people may devalue a particular advocate for the poor, much as the U.S. “robber barons” of the early 20th century devalued the populist William Jennings Bryan. On the group-to-group level, the rich may devalue the poor, one ethnic or racial group may scorn another, and much of an entire society may devalue one of its major subsectors. It is this latter type of devaluation that we refer to as societal devaluation, meaning that the dominant sectors of society, and perhaps even society pretty much as a whole, hold the same one or more classes of people in very low esteem.

39That individuals can harbor their own idiosyncratic devaluations that differ from those of other individuals is illustrated by Figure 5.1. In it, we see that one particular person—S1—may hold people of Type A in high esteem but may devalue people of Types B, C, and D. Another person—S219475

40—may devalue people of Types A and B but value very highly those of Types C and D. Yet another person—S3—may value people of Types A, B, and C but not people of Type D. And so on.

41However, if one compiles the various positive and negative valuations held by specific individuals, one can begin to see how these can aggregate into a global and consistent pattern of group devaluations, as shown in Figure 5.2.




42The third premise underlying SRV is that societal devaluation is more devastating than individual devaluation, because it creates whole classes of people who systematically receive bad treatment in and from society. When a person sees his or her whole society or social class devaluing an entire other group or class of people, then for several reasons that person is extremely likely to join that devaluation process. As each separate member of a class or society joins in collective or societal devaluation, eventually almost the whole collectivity and its structures militate against the good of that entire devalued class. In contrast, one specific person’s idiosyncratic devaluation is much less likely than collective devaluation to recruit many others into joining it.

43Another reason societal devaluation is more destructive than other kinds is that when a party is the object of devaluation by only one or a few persons, that party generally has options to escape the devaluation—options that hardly exist when that party is devalued by an entire society. For instance, the party can avoid the presence of the devaluers and remain in, or enter, other social circles; or the party can take refuge with others who hold it in high esteem. But when the party is devalued by an entire society, then such escape options hardly exist, or at least are very much reduced.


44Another premise underlying SRV theory is that individuals, and especially entire collectivities, are much more likely to be unaware of their devaluations than of their positive valuations of other people. In fact, it is not at all uncommon for people to deny that they do or could hold any such devaluations. Actually, the reason is very simple: People tend to repress things they perceive as unpleasant or unworthy, but not those that they perceive as pleasant or noble. And in the Western world, viewing others in a positive light is seen as something good, but viewing them in a negative light is seen as something bad, sometimes even outright despicable, or at least as something to be ashamed of.

45This reality points to certain things that are necessary in attempts to promote SRV and to improve the lives of devalued people by implementing SRV. One is to get the relevant parties to acknowledge the existence of devaluation. For instance, there may be denials that this or that group is societally devalued, or is systematically engaged in devaluation, and, therefore, there are also apt to be denials that there is a problem requiring address. Unconsciousness can go so far that people will even deny the most blatant ongoing collective devaluations by others, not just their own idiosyncratic, personal ones. Also, even when the reality of devaluation is acknowledged in the abstract, it may be denied when it hits close to home. For instance, many parties have no trouble identifying devaluing practices of others but resist any such identification of their own devaluations. One problem is that because SRV requires both acknowledging and then addressing an unpleasant social reality—that of devaluation—it is apt to generate resistance and even hostility.


46A fifth premise underlying SRV, already mentioned, is that a society is apt to extend what it defines as the “good life” to those people whom it values, and to whom it perceives in a positive light. This will largely be those people whom that society perceives as filling roles which are valued positively in that society. The more positively valued the roles that a party fills, the more will that party’s society be likely to extend good things to it. In contrast, those people in devalued roles tend to get the bad things.


47What “the good things of life” are considered to be will vary somewhat from culture to culture, and over time. Still, if one looks across cultures and time, one will find a great deal of convergence on what these “good things of life” are: respect, acceptance (or at least tolerance), positive relationship, integration into the valued activities of society, access to material goods and welfare, housing that is decent according to the standards of that place and time, functions (work-related and other ones) that are considered important and contributive. People who are valued in society are apt either (a) to be given these things—or access to them—by others who have it in their power to do so, or (b) to be able to take or acquire these things for themselves. But people who are cast into devalued status and devalued roles are apt to have these things withheld or taken from them and to instead get such things as rejection; separation, segregation, and exclusion, even to the point of exile; poorer quality food, housing, clothing, education, and health care; work that no one else wants to do if they can help it; and even violence and brutality, all of which we will elaborate in the next section.

48Note that it is only in relation to a referent group or individual who is doing the valuing or devaluing that we can say that they will or will not extend “the good things of life” to those whom they value and devalue. Further, it is what they consider “the good things of life” that they will extend to those whom they value, and probably withhold from those they devalue. And yet further, they will only be able to extend what they actually have to offer, even if they want to extend more. For example, a society that values warmth and beautiful shelter but is in the middle of war, famine, plague, or other social calamity, may only be able to offer the crudest mud hut even to those people it does value.


49People who are devalued, and especially who are devalued by their society, have all sorts of hurtful things done to them precisely because they are seen as being of low value. Sometimes, these things are done with conscious and explicit intent; sometimes, they are done unconsciously; and sometimes these things are simply the result of life conditions and circumstances that are the way they are for the devalued party because of that party’s devalued status and life experiences.

  • 3 In Wolfensberger (1998), a clearer distinction was made between the bad things that commonly happen (...)

50Very briefly, the following are the hurtful things that are apt to characterize the lives of societally devalued people. Many people within the SRV teaching culture refer to these bad things as the common “wounds” of societally devalued people. This brief summary has been extracted from the more than four hours of presentation on it that is given at introductory SRV courses. A similar summary is found in Wolfensberger (1998) and a much briefer one in Wolfensberger (1992).3

511. Many devalued people are, or become, impaired in body, including in brain or sense organs. Some get devalued because they have impairments of body that were either evident at birth or acquired afterward. However, so often, the opposite also happens, in that people who were devalued for other reasons become impaired in body as a result of that devaluation, and this usually makes them even more devalued. For instance, people may become impaired as a result of poverty, poor nutrition, unsafe living conditions, poor health care, or being assaulted—all things that are very likely to happen to them as a result of being devalued.

522. Many devalued people are impaired in functioning. These impairments may have been the reason they were devalued in the first place, or they may be the result of the person having been devalued for some other reason. In either case, the functional impairment may be a result of a physical impairment, though functional impairments can also exist in the absence of physical impairments. Examples of functional impairments include deficiencies in seeing, hearing, speaking, thinking, mobility, or self-care. Because of their devalued state and bad living conditions, children from devalued classes may grow up less intelligent, virtually illiterate, and/or mentally conflicted, even if they are physically whole. Many devalued people are or end up impaired in some area of functioning that most valued people possess and take for granted, such as basic literacy, getting along adaptively with other people, running and maintaining a household, attending to one’s personal appearance, and so on.

533. Devalued people get relegated to low social status in society and are looked down upon. They are considered second-class citizens—or even worse—and treated accordingly.

544. One of the hurtful things that happens to devalued people that is of special relevance to SRV is that they get cast into roles that are devalued in society, and their access to valued social roles is severely diminished, or even eliminated. Typically, there is some kind of link between lowered social status and the specific devalued role that gets imposed on a status-degraded person, or the valued roles that get withheld from such a person. In other words, devalued people are given a role identity that confirms and justifies society’s ascription of low value or worth to them. Over and over, societally devalued people get perceived or treated as occupying, and even shaped into becoming, the following common negative social roles.

a. A common devalued role is that of a person as “other,” that is, an alien (perhaps like a creature from outer space), as so different that one does not know how to classify the person. In French, the term les autres (the others) may be used to refer to what sociologists call “out-groups.”
b. Devalued people may be cast into subhuman and nonhuman roles, and sometimes this is done by denying “personhood” to them. For instance, if they are young enough, they may be seen and treated as “prehuman,” that is, not yet human (perhaps as creatures who will never attain humanhood). This is apt to be done to the unwanted unborn and handicapped newborns. Or, they may be seen as creatures who once used to be human but are not any longer. This role is apt to be imposed on elderly people, particularly those who are senile or comatose. Devalued people may be cast into the role of a subhuman animal and be perceived as having primitive, animalistic feelings and behaviors. Interestingly, people who are seen as “animal-humans” commonly get treated worse than “animal-animals” get treated. Devalued people may be perceived as vegetables and be called “vegetables” or “vegetative.” They may be cast into the role of object, that is, an insensate item, perhaps to be warehoused or used as sources of organs for other people.
One overall fact about the nonhuman roles is that it is generally seen as permissible to kill creatures that are not human, and, therefore, when people are cast into one of these roles, they are usually treated very badly, and often even made dead.
c. Either individually or as a class, devalued people are at risk of being cast into the role of menace or object of dread, in which case they are perceived and interpreted as a threat to others, society, and/or themselves. People cast into this role are usually also very badly treated. For instance, during the height of the social Darwinism era, mentally retarded people were seen as a grave threat to the very survival of civilization and systematically subjected to extremely hurtful “eugenic” measures.
d. When they are put in the object of ridicule role, devalued persons are made the butt of demeaning jokes, laughed at, teased and tormented, and even socialized into behavior patterns that provide amusement and entertainment to others.
e. Devalued people may be viewed as objects of pity, in which case observers feel sorry for them; and perhaps because they want to make life easy for the afflicted, they place few or no demands on them for performance, learning, or growth.
f. Devalued people may be seen as burdens of charity, in which case others may feel a duty to take care of the person, but without gladness or any positive feelings, and perhaps while resenting the obligation. The devalued person may then be provided for at only a bare subsistence level, or may only be given occasional or other benefits whenever the donor or caretaker is moved by guilt.
g. Many devalued people get cast into a child role, which can take two forms. One is the role of the eternal child who never matures into adult status and competence, and whose behaviors, interests, capabilities, and so on, will always remain at a childlike level. Mentally limited people are often cast into this role. A second form is that of having reverted from adulthood back to childhood. Elderly people are commonly cast in this role, as when they are said to be “in their second childhood.”
h. Devalued people may be cast into the role of sick or diseased organism, or even into the identity of sickness personified. Typically, the devalued characteristic or condition is said to be a disease, usually one for which the afflicted person is not held culpable. Such a perception may also exonerate any other parties—family, community, even society as a whole—from any responsibility in having brought about the condition. At any rate, the “disease” is said to require “treatment” by various forms of “therapy,” which are to be given to the “patient” in settings, and by personnel, that are medical, or at least medically imaged, thus resulting in a medical service model. This may go so far that the person’s entire life and identity are medicalized.
i. Death-related and death-imaged roles (e.g., dying, as good as dead, or indeed already dead) may be inappropriately and/or destructively imposed on certain devalued people. For instance, live people may be declared dead, perhaps so that their organs can be taken from them. People who are not dying may be put into the dying role. Elderly or chronically ill people may be cast as dying. They, plus others (such as disliked people, long-term prisoners, or people viewed as having “outlived their usefulness”) may be related to as if they had already died.

55For further elaboration of the first eight roles, see Wolfensberger, 1972, pp. 12-25; or Wolfensberger, 1977, pp. 135-148; or Wolfensberger, 1978, pp. 1-16. For elaboration of the dying role specifically, see Wolfensberger, 1989, pp. 1-4.

56Here, only those negative roles have been identified that have a great deal of historical continuity, and which tend to be nearly universally imposed upon all sorts of societally devalued people. However, there are also other negative roles that may be specific to a particular cultural era or devalued group. One example is the devalued party as a source of income—something like a milch cow—to the valued people in a locale, or to valued people of a particular type, such as those in one occupation. For instance, devalued people have increasingly been serving this function to the human service professions since the 1950s. Similarly, all devalued people who receive services from a formal service agency are in the role of service client, and, as documented in Wolfensberger and Thomas (1994), this is a problematic mix of some positive, some neutral, and mostly negative elements. However, unlike the other devalued roles, these are obviously not roles that could have been found virtually everywhere and at all times.

575. As a result of being relegated to low social status, people who are devalued get systematically rejected, not only by society as a whole, but quite often even by their own family, neighbors, community, and even by the workers in services that are supposed to assist them. Rejection means that other people really do not want these people around.

586. Internal feelings of rejection usually get externalized into behaviors that push the devalued person away. So valued people put distance between themselves and those they devalue and reject. The valued people may do this by removing themselves (i.e., by withdrawing as far as possible from those they devalue) or by moving the devalued people away. For instance, they may segregate devalued people into separate settings, perhaps even ghettos and reservations, or send them into a form of exile. Thus, the distance may be physical, as in segregation; and when people are segregated because they are devalued, they usually also get congregated with other devalued people, often into huge groups. But the distance may also be social, as in various forms of degradation that make it clear how lowly the devalued party is seen to be even when no physical distance is put between the two parties. For instance, a distinctly different and less honoring form of address may be used for devalued people than for valued ones, even when both are present in the same physical space.

597. Quite naturally, when a party is devalued and rejected, and other people withdraw from contact with that devalued party, this also means that natural relationships—such as family and friends—get withdrawn and severed. When natural relationships are no longer freely and voluntarily given to devalued people, other people are apt to be recruited to do what is needed for them. These other people almost always have to be paid, because that is the only reason they would be involved with the devalued person, and when such payment ceases, so does their presence. So the lives of devalued persons often begin to be filled with artificial and “boughten” relationships that are really substitutes for the “real thing” that valued people enjoy, such as the voluntary and willing relationships of family, friends, loved ones, and acquaintances. Some devalued people do not have one single enduring unpaid relationship.

608. Furthermore, devalued people commonly get moved around a lot and therefore experience a very wounding discontinuity with places and physical objects. Often, these physical moves are interpreted as for a devalued person’s own good, or as progress and growth in independence. There can be scores of such discontinuities in a person’s lifetime, and many can be quite traumatic.

619. Commonly, the devalued person also suffers a great many social and relationship discontinuities, meaning that people come and go in that person’s life endlessly—all this while the natural relationships are not there. Often, relationship discontinuity accompanies, or is the result of, physical discontinuity, but even when a person is stable in one place, there may still be many, many people who walk in and out of the person’s life. What makes this even more hurtful is that many of these very people (especially paid ones) make either explicit or implicit promises that they want to be friends, that they are going to help, that they are “not like the others”—and yet all of them may end up leaving, perhaps after only a brief presence. When such an explicit or implicit promise has been made and then gets broken, the wound of the discontinuity is compounded by the wound of betrayal.

6210. Devalued people also experience loss of control over their lives. It is other people who gain power over them and make decisions for them, in both overt and subtle ways, some of them already mentioned above.

6311. Devalued people also get deindividualized. They are subjected to regimentation and mass management, and they so often have to accommodate themselves to whatever is available, rather than getting what they need or want when they need or want it, and the way that they need or want it.

6412. Devalued people commonly end up poor. In both overt and subtle ways—some so subtle that they may not be recognized for what they are—devalued people end up with very little in the way of material goods. If they need services, they may have to impoverish themselves in order to receive them, or they may end up poor as a result of receiving services. Some devalued people come from families and classes that have been poor for generations.

6513. Devalued people also suffer impoverishment in the world of experience, which is often very narrow for them. They are denied participation in valued society and its activities, and there may even be places to which they are forbidden—or otherwise unable—to go. Many experiences that valued people take for granted may be withheld from, and be strange to, devalued people.

6614. One particular experience from which devalued people may get cut off is knowledge of, and participation in, the religious or spiritual life of society. There are handicapped people who have never really been given instruction in the religion they may have been born into, nor been permitted to participate in the community life of their fellow believers.

6715. One of the major results of all this is that devalued people’s lives so often get wasted. Days, weeks, months, years, a lifetime goes by while they are denied opportunities, challenges, experiences, and their earlier potential is wasted or destroyed. When they do receive service, it is often the wrong kind, or, at any rate, of less intensity or quality than they could benefit from, or than valued people would get. Many devalued people spend much of their time just sitting and waiting, wasting away, often even in the service programs in which they are enrolled.

6816. Devalued people are at extreme risk of being society’s scapegoats. Whatever the problem is, devalued people are apt to be suspected of causing or exacerbating it, and punishing devalued people in some way is widely promoted as the solution to a societal problem. For instance, devalued people are more likely than valued people to be suspected of an offense that has been committed by unknown parties, accused of it, arrested, prosecuted, convicted, and given a harsh sentence. Entire devalued classes may be accused as guilty when a society experiences a natural disaster or social or economic problem.

6917. Devalued people get systematically and relentlessly juxtaposed to images that carry very negative messages in the eyes of society. Services to them get put in locations where valued people do not want to be; devalued people get placed with other people whom society also does not want; image-degrading names are given to their services; elements of their personal appearance that attract negative attention are not addressed, or their deviant appearance may even be enlarged by people in charge of their lives; services to them are funded by appeals that are image-tainting. All these (and other) sorts of negative images convey messages such as that these people are worthless, subhuman, menaces, dangerous, and despicable—and this negative-imaging perpetuates the social devaluation and invites other people to do bad things to the devalued people.

7018. Devalued people are thus very much at risk of being badly treated, brutalized, violated, even to the point of being made dead. They may get assaulted on the streets, in their families, or by their service workers. Other people will think they are justified in getting rid of them permanently, that is, ending their lives.

7119. As a result of all these things, devalued people become very much aware that they are aliens in the valued world, that they do not fit in, that they are not welcome. They are apt to become very insecure and may even begin to dislike themselves and think that they really are despicable, unlovable, worthless, and that it is their own fault.

7220. Many devalued people may become embittered and perhaps even full of resentment and hatred toward the privileged world for having done, and continuing to do, these things to them.

7321. Some devalued people (especially impaired ones) may be very aware that they are a source of anguish to whatever people may still be around who love them, especially their family members. They realize that they are not what others wish they were, and that others—especially their loved ones—are suffering because of who and what they are.

74What we have just sketched is the real way that devalued people tend to experience the world, and this way of seeing their lives is radically different from the typical technical teaching of human service training programs. This real story happens over and over, and can be retold at least in part in virtually any devalued individual’s life.

75Obviously, the bad things that happen to devalued people are not only hurtful, but can also become life-defining. Examples are having to live in poverty, being perceived for much of one’s life as a social menace or as subhuman, being segregated, being excluded from major opportunities in life, having one’s life wasted, and so on.


76If one wants to help devalued people be seen more positively by others and be accorded more value by them, then one has to recognize how important social roles are in determining how people are valued by others, and whether others will extend and do good or bad things to a person. Therefore, with the foregoing as background, we will now explain the importance of social roles to whether a person is positively or negatively valued by others.


77First, it helps to understand that one never really encounters people “in the abstract” (i.e., stripped of their social roles and role-related functions, or even of role cues). In fact, one always encounters people in contexts that at the very least suggest some roles. The very fact that people are encountered so often in settings where (as we will explain) they have been put because of the roles they are perceived to hold, and with other people with whom they get put because of the roles they are perceived to hold, means in turn that the social context will suggest what a person’s roles are. Additionally, things such as bodily appearance, attire, activities, and other language or social cues contribute to at least a tentative social role perception in the eyes of beholders.

78For example, aspects of appearance and behavior suggest various degrees of competency, dependence, or age, which in turn affect whether an observer will get the idea that the person holds certain roles. Thus, a person who appears in the uniform of a security or police officer, or of a member of the military, will be assumed by observers to be a security officer, policeman, or member of the military. And orders issued by such a person (to disperse, to clear the sidewalk, etc.) are apt to be obeyed, whereas persons lacking such a uniform will not be perceived to have the authority that compels other people to obey their orders.

79A person who appears in the clothing of a young child, whose grooming is like that of a young person, whose behavior is immature, and who looks very young would hardly be perceived in such roles as those of college professor, accountant, or homeowner. This can create a problem where the person really does hold a role competently and legitimately but fails to meet certain expectations in regard to role elements such as age, gender, appearance, demeanor, and so forth. For instance, a young adult male who is put in charge of a group of adolescents but who is perceived as very young—perhaps as little more than a child himself because of youthful appearance—is apt to have a lot of trouble controlling the adolescents and getting them to extend to him the authority, respect, and obedience due someone in that role. Similarly, two homosexual men who adopt and rear a child will have great difficulty getting a lot of observers to treat them as the child’s “mother and father.” A person who is supposed to be a brain surgeon and appears for surgery dressed in a clown costume is not apt to receive cooperation from either the patient or from fellow physicians, the anesthetist, and operating-room nurses.

80Furthermore, people are almost always embedded in a context of language and other symbols. More often than not, people are introduced and accompanied by language that interprets them as filling some social roles. For instance, there is language associated with different work-related roles such as secretary, electrician, supervisor, employer. Then there are relationship role interpretations, such as husband, wife, brother, mother, and so on, mentioned earlier. A positive introduction of a newborn would be “Come, see the new addition to our family,” “Here is our new baby daughter,” or “This is our long-awaited crown prince.” A negative role about a newborn could be conveyed by language referring to it as “a monster,” “a vegetable,” or “preemie trash.”


81In addition to the fact that people always encounter each other in a context that suggests that they hold certain roles, it also seems to be a fact that people relate to each other largely on the basis of the social roles that they fill. Then, much as one might wish they would, people have the greatest difficulty relating to each other as unique divine creations made in the image of God, and therefore of absolute and intrinsic value. Nor do people even relate to each other “soul to soul,” as humans might in paradise, or as name to name. We hardly even relate to each other only as child to adult, adult to adult, male to female, and so forth. Instead, either in addition to one or more of the above elements, and sometimes even in lieu of them, we relate to others as friend, best friend, acquaintance, stranger, the boss, the shop steward, a bank teller, a traffic cop, a store clerk, the President, that nasty neighbor, the class clown, my husband, my mom, my “ex,” and so on—in other words, largely via social roles just as SRV posits. Even our most intimate personal relationships are shaped and determined by the roles that each party to a relationship fills.

82Among other things, one’s roles—and especially one’s major roles—will largely determine three important things: how one gets treated, where one gets placed or is permitted to be, and who one gets associated with and juxtaposed to.


83In regard to how a person is treated and what gets done to the person, someone in the role of prince or princess is apt to be treated royally. People who are seen as animals may not only be called animals, but may even be given food that is all mixed together like pig slop, and perhaps no utensils to eat with. It is no surprise, then, when people so treated act like animals. Similarly, people who are seen as menaces may be put in fetters or dressed in prison attire. Again, it is no surprise when people so treated end up believing they are a threat to others and behave as if they were.


84In addition, one’s major roles are apt to define where one gets put, so to speak. For example, someone in the valued role of daughter or son is apt to be put in the family home. Someone in the dying role (e.g., a person in the terminal stages of cancer or in a prolonged coma) is apt to be put in a place for those seen to be dying. Someone in the clearly devalued role of animal is apt to be put in an animalistic environment, perhaps in a cage, nest, or the equivalent, and usually into places that are fit for animals but not for people. These places can have all sorts of animal imagery attached to them, such as walls and floors that are easily hosed down. People cast into the menace role will be relegated to places that are considered suitable for such persons, such as places of detention, isolation, or where they can be easily watched and where workers are guards or police-imaged.

85However, some devalued roles (such as object of pity or charity, or eternal child) are apt to be less defining of where one gets put than others (such as those of subhuman animal or menace), though they will certainly strongly influence how one is treated.


86Third, one’s major roles will certainly affect, and even determine, who one gets to be associated with and juxtaposed to. For instance, a person in the role of head of government will be associated with other heads of state, politicians, security personnel, and so forth. A person in the role of elementary school student will be juxtaposed to and associated with other students and teachers, school bus drivers, and so on. A person in the eternal child role will get put with children and childish adults, or those who are perceived that way.


87People sometimes raise the objection that instead of doing so on the basis of social roles, people ought to relate to—and value—each other “as persons,” or “for themselves,” regardless of social roles. In examining this issue from the perspective of SRV, it is important first to separate empirical issues from nonempirical ones. And here, it must be recognized that to the degree that one attaches a different meaning to the terms “person” and “personhood” than one does to “human” and “humanhood,” the question to what degree someone “is a person” or “has personhood” or is valuable “as a person” is an issue that is above the level of empiricism. Instead, it is an issue on the level of belief, of worldview—in a word, religion.

88Second, the question of whether humans or persons have absolute or relative value is also on a level of belief above the empirical realm.

89What social science, and SRV as a social science theory, can do is identify what roles are positively and negatively valued in a society; what life conditions get afforded to people who fill devalued roles and to people who fill valued ones; what the relationship is between the social image that a party possesses and the social roles that that party is likely to fill; what the relationship is between a party’s degree of competence and the social roles that that party will be able or even allowed to hold; what it takes to secure and maintain valued social roles for oneself or others; and so forth.

90But social science (and therefore SRV) cannot address whether any person or human, or all of them, should be positively or negatively valued, or whether any human, person or group should be more or less highly valued than another. In other words, it cannot give one a premise for deciding to pursue those measures which will result in people being accorded a more or less valued life in their society. It can reveal what it is that individuals and society value; what is and is not likely to happen when people are subjected to certain measures that make them valued or devalued in other people’s eyes; what will or will not secure valued participation for a person in society; what will or will not elicit respect, cooperation, presence, and positive attitudes toward a person by others; and so on.

91In light of this, we should also be very clear that at least the modernistic formulation of personhood is strongly linked to—and probably even motivated by—a “religion” that wants to define some people as not persons and therefore as legitimate to kill, such as by having essential treatment withheld or withdrawn, or by abortion. Thus, even though this modernistic conceptualization has built elaborate constructs of personhood, it most certainly does not value all humans “as persons” or “for themselves”; instead, it values them only to the degree that they meet certain criteria—usually utilitarian ones. A prime example of all this is the set of 15 criteria established by the influential bioethicist Joseph Fletcher (1972, 1975), who died in 1991, that a creature has to meet before it can be considered a person, namely: (a) minimal intelligence (IQ below 40 “questionably a person,” IQ below 20 “not a person”); (b) self-awareness; (c) self-control; (d) a sense of time; (e) a sense of futurity; (f) a sense of past; (g) capability to relate to others; (h) concern for others; (i) communication; (j) control of one’s existence; (k) curiosity; (1) changeability, and not being opposed to change; (m) balance of rationality and feelings; (n) idiosyncrasy; and (o) neocortical functioning. These criteria have been widely accepted and cited in the field of “bioethics.”

92This being the dominant theme of contemporary discourse around “personhood,” it is dangerous to rely on such a slippery construct to protect people who are already seen as having little value.


93Even if one used personhood in a fashion to mean human from conception to death, and as of absolute intrinsic and indivisible value, one would still be up against the reality that humans relate to other humans not in the abstract, but through the medium of their characteristics, and their perceived or actual roles. Thus, even if one grants that it is crucially important for people to be valued “for themselves” (as indeed we do believe), one still has to conclude that the implications of SRV are both very important and very powerful in converting the abstract valuation of a person into meaningful action in the social world. That is, taking society in the aggregate, there is clearly a relationship between the degree to which a person is valued “as a person” or “for him or herself,” and the value of the roles extended to the person. The more valued a person is for him or herself, the more likely it is that valued roles will be given to him or her. But at the same time, the more valued roles a person fills, the more likely it is that he or she will become valued by others “for him or herself,” and/or will not be devalued.

94We can turn this insight around and note that when people claim to be valuing others “as persons” or “for themselves,” but at the same time cast or keep these others in devalued roles, then there is good reason to distrust their rhetoric and to suspect that there is devaluation at work, even if only unconsciously so. Thus, claims that people should be valued “for themselves” must go beyond rhetoric and must be accompanied by efforts to enhance their social roles, so that it will be more likely that they will, in fact, become valued by others “as persons.” In the words of Peter Maurin, a personalist who was the cofounder of the Catholic Worker movement in the US, one should do things that make it easier for others to be good.

95So the evidence appears to be quite strong for the SRV proposition that social roles are the major medium through which people relate to each other. One might put it that social roles are the field, the battleground, on which the question of whether to positively value others and how to treat them, is fought out in most people’s minds, at least on an unconscious level.


96All of this has implications to people who are societally devalued or at risk of such devaluation. Namely, if people relate to each other largely on the basis of social roles, and if “the good things of life” (such as respect, prestige, accommodation to one’s wishes, access to material resources, etc.) are extensively accorded based on the value of the social roles a person fills, then it follows that if devalued people are to be accorded these good things, then as a general rule they must obtain and hold valued social roles, and, if necessary, be helped by others to do so. The roles that a party holds must be valued by that society, and/or by those people, from which the good things of life are desired. If the good things of life that are desired can be had from a societal subsector, then the party must hold roles that are valued within and by that subsector. Further, the larger the number of broad valued roles a person fills, the more likely is it that his or her life will be defined and shaped to resemble that of valued people. Also, to the degree that devalued people are mentally capable of doing so, they, too, have to decide whether they are willing to enter and carry out valued social roles, or whether they would rather eschew or forfeit such roles. Of course, they will bear the consequences of doing so, among which will be that they are much less likely to be given what are ordinarily considered the “good things” of life.

97These various probabilistic assertions about how the number and width of a person’s roles affect the way that others treat that person are crucially important. This is underlined here because people constantly fall into simplistic and binary interpretations, and find it difficult to deal with a phenomenon that is multidimensional and complex. Normalization theory and SRV have been relentlessly plagued by such simplistic misunderstandings and misinterpretations of their complexity.

98Note that what determines access to specific social roles, and the importance of these roles, is at least to some extent culturally relative. For instance, in the past, much more so than now, gender was a very important determinant in Western societies of which roles a person could fill. It also helped to determine how important a specific role would be in different people’s lives, and which roles were assumed to be more important to and for a man than to and for a woman. In other societies, gender may still rule out eligibility for certain social roles and may still dominate the importance of certain social roles.

99In contrast to culturally relative determinants of social roles, there are other factors or characteristics that rather universally determine or constrain what roles a person may fill. Age is one of these. Apparently in all societies without exception, a person’s age will rule out certain roles and open access to others, will reduce the likelihood of some social roles and increase the likelihood of others, and will also determine how life-defining certain roles will be. A newborn infant may be perceived as filling, and cast into, such social roles as: new son or daughter; sibling; helpless dependent child; little prince or princess; unwanted burden; prehuman nuisance; and so on. But the newborn is extremely unlikely to be perceived or cast into the roles of worker, student, or parent, though he or she might be cast into the role of future student (e.g., when its parents establish a college fund), future spouse (e.g., when it is betrothed to the heir of a neighboring kingdom), and so forth. Some roles may even be “set up” by a child’s origins from birth on. For instance, a child of a ruling house may be designated from birth as heir to the throne and treated accordingly. Again, these are some of the realities that call for nuancing and judgment, which are commonly lacking in how people interpret SRV.


100The more positive is a party’s image in the eyes of others, and the more competencies the party possesses, the more will other people be apt to perceive that party positively, value that party highly, accord that party valued roles, and accept that party in valued roles. Specifically regarding social roles, we will now examine how people’s social image and/or their competencies affect the conferring, the pursuit, the obtaining, and the securing of valued roles.


101The more a person is seen by others as projecting a positive image, and is esteemed, admired, respected, and positively identified with, the more will positively valued roles be open to him or her. For instance, a handicapped child who is dressed like other children of the same age and carries all the school-related accessories that other children carry—books, book bag, pencils, gym bag, and so on—will be more likely to be accorded the role of a pupil or student and the good things that go with this than one who does not fit the image of a pupil.

102In fact, other people will often bend over backward to accord valued roles to people who are positively imaged. Just think of how people who are highly valued in society are always being invited to sit on this or that board, to be an honorary chairperson of this or that, to join something; and how often they are given gifts that range anywhere from small tokens to lavish and expensive items. (For instance, the U.S. President and the President’s family are the recipients of literally mountains of gifts, ranging from souvenirs to jewelry to designer clothes to large live animals.) Valued people are given these things in good part because other people want to be somehow positively associated with such persons, and giving a gift is seen as one way of positively associating oneself to a party. In the same way, if devalued people were interpreted and presented more positively in society, others would be more likely to be receptive to their presence or even eager for it, want to give good things to them, and not object to providing—within reasonable limits—what they need.

103Because the meanings of images do get associated or transferred to whatever it is they are juxtaposed to, especially if the juxtaposition is a strong and consistent one, this means that devalued people need to be strongly and consistently juxtaposed to all sorts of images that carry positive meanings and messages—or at least less negative ones—if they are to become more valued. This has implications to the settings that they use, the people they are associated to, the activities they carry out, and all the miscellaneous avenues by which images can be associated to people. More on image transfer later.

104Because it is people in positively valued social roles who are apt to be granted access to those good things of life that others can afford them, it is important that everything associated with the procuring, the maintenance, and the defense of these roles also be positively valued by those who have it in their power to extend good or bad things to the devalued persons. Otherwise, (a) the valued roles may not be obtained or kept, and/or (b) valued roles that are procured or kept may lose some of their perceived value—i.e., be image-tainted—by association with things that are not so positively valued. Thus, SRV emphasizes using, as much as possible, culturally valued means or processes for the crafting, keeping, and carrying out of valued roles; and identifying, capitalizing upon, using, or at the very least emulating, what is done for valued people in society and what they aspire to. When things that are positively valued in society are associated with devalued people, then three good things are likely to happen for them. (a) Observers who might have assumed that negative stereotypic expectations applied to an observed member of a devalued class will be thrown into ambiguity by the positive imagery and have to begin to entertain new possibilities for that party. (b) At least some of the positive value attached to these things will transfer, by association, onto the devalued people themselves. (c) Valued people will see devalued people as more like themselves, will therefore positively identify with them and will want good things to happen for them, because one usually wants goods things to happen to those with whom one identifies. (More on this later.) Table 5.3 lists the major implications of SRV that have to do with image enhancement. In all cases, when a table refers to a “party,” this means a person or group or class whose social image is at issue.

Related to the places and settings associated with a party

Harmony of the setting used by the party with the appearance of the rest of the neighborhood
Harmony of the activities or program that take place in that setting with the nature of the rest of the neighborhood
Beauty of the exterior of a setting used by a party
Beauty of the interior of a setting used by a party
Congruity of the external appearance of a setting used by a party with the appearance of culturally valued analogous settings for valued people
Congruity of the internal appearance of a setting used by a party with the appearance of culturally valued analogous settings for valued people
External appearance of the setting that positively reflects the age of its users
Internal appearance of the setting that positively reflects the age of its users
Location of a setting next or near to positively imaged other settings
Location of a setting in or on a site that has a positive, or at least neutral, history
Positive messages conveyed by the other imagery of a setting
Related to juxtapositions of a party being served with other parties
Proximity of the activities or program of a party to other programs that are positively imaged
Size of a social grouping that does not overwhelm the assimilation capacity of the surrounding valued community
Grouping a party with others so as to convey a positive image
Grouping a party with others in a way that is congruent with the age mix of culturally valued analogous groupings for valued people
Promotion of image-enhancing social integration of a party with valued people
Positive image of those who serve upon a party
Identity of servers that is congruent with the needs of a party, and the nature of the service being rendered
Related to the activities and uses of time by a party
Maintaining a separation of functions in a party’s program or activities that is appropriate to the valued culture
Activities, and timing/scheduling of activities, that are congruent with the practices of valued people in valued society, and consistent with expectations for people of the same age as the party
Promotion of the image-enhancing exercise of autonomy and rights by a party
Related to miscellaneous issues
Address of a party’s personal appearance and presentation so that these are as enhancing of its image as possible, and as little image-damaging as possible
Promotion of image-enhancing personal possessions for a party
Language and labeling practices to and about a party that are as enhancing of its image as possible, and as little image-damaging as possible
Names of a party’s service and the service setting that are as enhancing of the party’s image as possible, and as little image-damaging as possible
Funding support for services to a party that is as image-enhancing as possible
All other image projections that are as image-enhancing of a party as possible

105An entire set of implications has to do with the imagery projected by the places or settings that are associated with a party. For instance, the party’s image will be affected by whether the setting looks like it fits in to its neighborhood. Similarly, the attractiveness of a setting, whether it appears like the settings that are used for the same purpose by valued people, and whether it positively reflects the ages of its users, will all influence the image of its users. A setting’s history, and its location next to or near other settings, will also contribute to the image of the people with whom the setting is associated.

106Images are also conveyed by juxtapositions of people to each other. For instance, if a program for one group of people is juxtaposed to a program for another group of people, then the image of either group may affect that of the other. Also, the size and composition of a congregation of people will influence the capacity of the surrounding valued community and its resources to absorb them. The image of people is also affected by whether the age range of their groupings parallels the age range of similar groupings for valued people, and whether they are integrated with valued people. The image of the servers, too, can influence the image of the people served.

107Activities and uses of time can also convey images about people. For instance, the activities, their schedules, and the ways they are carried out will be valued differently, depending on whether they are the same as those for valued people in society, and particularly valued people of the same age. As well, the degree of autonomy accorded and exercised by a party can image it as either incompetent, age-degraded, and unlike valued people, or as competent and like valued people of the same age in society.

108Then there are all sorts of other miscellaneous sources of imagery about a party including its personal appearance, its possessions, the language and terminology used to and about it, the names of any services to the party, and any funding that the party receives.


109The second avenue to valued roles is through competence, at least in the very wide sense in which it has been defined in SRV theory (see Table 5.4).

1. Bodily integrity and health, and the capacity to protect and maintain these
2. Bodily competence: strength, agility, stamina
3. Self-help skills: walking, eating, toileting, dressing and grooming, personal hygiene, capacity to project a positive personal appearance
4. Communication
5. Intellectual ability, skills, habits, and disciplines: knowledge, reasoning, curiosity, mental engagement, prudent risk-taking, foresight
6. Motivation, initiative, drive, stick-to-it-iveness
7. Competent exercise of personal autonomy and control, including responsibility, self-control and selfmastery, anticipation and acceptance of consequences
8. Confidence, self-possession, ability to be decisive
9. Social and relationship competency: social graces, “manners,” etiquette, friendliness, considerateness of others; capacity to enter into and maintain adaptive relationships of different types, including intimate ones
10. Unfolding and expression of self, individuality, uniqueness

110One broad area of competency is that of bodily integrity, health, and functioning. The more a person’s body is whole, the more physical health, strength, stamina, and coordination a person possesses, the more competent the person probably is, or can become.

111Then there are various skills that come under the rubric of self-help. These include walking, eating, dressing and grooming oneself, toileting and bathing, and the capacity to project a positive personal appearance.

112Communication is another broad area of competence, which would normatively include hearing, speaking, and writing.

113A next area of personal competence is mental ability and capacity, including habits of initiative, curiosity, reasonable risk-taking, and engaging oneself in tasks.

114Competence also includes the exercise of autonomy and control in one’s life, yoked, it is hoped, to responsibility for oneself and one’s actions, to self-control and mastery over one’s passions and appetites, and to acceptance of the consequences of one’s acts.

115Another broad area of competency is in social relationships. This includes such skills and habits as social graces, good manners, friendliness, and responsiveness to others and their needs. Deeper elements of relationship competency include a sense of personal security, self-confidence, and the capacity to engage in and sustain various types of relationships with others, including very intimate and demanding ones.

116Lastly, there is the domain of self-discovery and self-expression.

117The more competent a person is in all these domains, the greater is the number and the wider is the range of socially valued roles the person will be able to fill. For instance, a wider range of potential work roles are open and possible for a person who can read, write, do math, and perform hard manual labor than for one who is illiterate, and incapable of hand labor. Also, certain competencies are needed in order to assume and carry out the functions associated with various valued roles. For instance, if one is to be a member of a choir, one has to have hearing and voice, be able to learn to sing on key, and possibly even to read music, or at least follow the choirmaster. Similarly, if one wants to fill the valued role of firefighter, then one has to be able to pass the written examinations, be strong enough to fight a fire while carrying and wearing heavy equipment, be level-headed so as not to panic under stress and danger, perhaps be able to get up at a moment’s notice from a sound sleep and get ready to go out to a fire right away, and so on.

118Also, apart from being needed in order to fill and carry out many social roles, personal competency is highly valued in and of itself in society. This means that people who are more competent will tend to be more valued “for themselves,” even aside from any specific valued social roles they may fill.

119Table 5.5 lists the major SRV implications that have to do with personal competency enhancement.

Related to the places and settings associated with a party
Setting that is accessible to a party and families
Setting that is accessible to the public
Setting location that is near easily accessible community resources that are relevant to the identities and needs of a party
Setting that is physically comfortable
Setting that is neither over-nor underprotective of its users
Setting that permits individualization by users
Related to juxtapositions of a party being served with other parties
Size of a grouping of a party with others that is facilitative of the competency development of its members
Composition of a grouping of a party with others that facilitates the competency development of its members, via positive intra-group modeling and imitation, and positive group expectancies
Promotion of competency-enhancing social integration of a party with valued people
Promotion of positive interactions between and among service recipients, service workers, and others
Individualization of a party
Promotion of a valued sociosexual identity for a party
Related to the activities and uses of time by a party
Address of a party’s real and most pressing needs
Intense and efficient use of a party’s time for competency development
Promotion of personal possessions that are enhancing of a party’s competencies

120Competency can be affected by the place and settings used by a party, for instance: the accessibility of a setting to its users; whether the setting is located near community resources that are relevant to the identities and needs of the users; the comfort of the setting; whether a setting permits individualization by its users, and is neither dangerous nor overprotective of them—all bear on the competencies that users will practice or develop.

121People’s competencies can also be affected by their associations and juxtapositions to other people. For instance, people’s competencies will be affected by the size of any program groupings of which they are members, and by whether the composition of a grouping provides positive intragroup models for imitation, and elevates the expectancies for the group as a whole. Also, people’s competencies are more likely to develop if they are treated as individuals, if they are encouraged in and even taught positive interactions with others, and if a valued sociosexual identity is enabled or fostered for them.

122As regards activities and uses of time, a party’s competencies will be profoundly shaped by whether their most pressing needs are incisively addressed, and whether their time is used efficiently, rather than wasted by others as it is so often in the case of devalued people. The objects that people are encouraged to possess and/or keep in order also influence the competencies they can exercise or will develop.


123Social Role Valorization implies that in order for people to fill and maintain valued roles, they will need both a positive social image and personal competencies; and the more they are devalued, the more they need these. To the extent that people are deficient in either positive social image or personal competency, then things will have to be done to enhance one or both if they are to be able to fill valued roles and be valued by others. Conversely, SRV also implies that the more a positive social image and personal competencies adhere to people, then the more valued roles will be available to them, and the more value will be accorded to the roles that they do fill.

  • 4 The 1998 SRV monograph (Wolfensberger, 1998) contains a more elaborate version of this feedback loo (...)

124Obviously, there are relationships and feedbacks between image and competency, as shown in Figure 5.3.4



125For instance, the more competencies a person is seen to possess, and the more valued these competencies are, the better an image the person will have in the eyes of observers. The power of the mere presumption that competency exists, even if it really does not, is attested by the fact that a person who is only assumed to possess competencies is also more apt to be accepted and integrated into valued society. This is sometimes referred to as a “competency halo.” In contrast, people who have, or are believed to have, few competencies are apt to have a poor social image as a result.

126Also, once a person is either observed to possess competencies or even is merely believed to possess them, the person will be expected to exercise such competencies, and to acquire new ones. Thus, opportunities to this end will be provided to the person, as well as models of competency for the person to imitate. Once a person demonstrates competence, this will enhance the person’s image. If the person fails to live up to the opportunity presented, as by not performing well, allowances will be made and leeway will be given, at least for a while.

127However, with certain exceptions, people who have a negative social image are less apt to be given opportunities to develop valued competencies; are apt to be segregated and therefore surrounded by poor models of competence; and are apt to have their failures judged, and be treated, much more harshly. As a result, such people are not only less apt to develop new competencies, but also less likely to exercise those they already possess. The exceptions are illuminating because they show the power of specific social roles. For instance, one exception is the child role. Even if that role is held by adults, others tend to be lenient about their failures and make allowances for them that they would not make for people in the menace role. The same is true with the sick role: People in this role are excused from all sorts of things, and failures may be written off to their “illness,” whereas the same accommodations would not be made for people not seen as sick.

128Even quite aside from the more intricate and roundabout elements of this feedback loop, it is also an empirical fact that positively imaged people are more likely to be judged as competent, and that people who are seen in a negative light are less likely to be attributed with competencies. In fact, others often seem to deny their real competencies in a way that suggests that this serves the function of meting out what to them seems to be deserved punishment to the devalued person.

129Some implications of SRV have more to do with imagery, and others more with competency; but even where one dominates, both are apt to be affected via the feedback mechanism discussed above, and this feedback is extremely strong, regardless of its directionality. Thus, even minor enhancements can have disproportionately dramatic positive impacts, while minor degradations can quickly become disastrous, and especially so for a person of already devalued identity.

130Before going to the next section on applying SRV, let us look at the question that might be raised why SRV should so heavily emphasize, and be interpreted in terms of, image and competency. This question might especially arise because in Wolfensberger’s (1972) earlier formulation of Normalization, two different dimensions—namely, interaction and interpretation—were used. In response, we can say the following:

131First, it is natural and logical to invoke the concepts of image and competency since that is largely what filling a role consists of: fulfilling people’s image (i.e., ideas) of what a role entails, and all the expectations associated with it; and exercising the competencies necessary to carry out any functions of the role.

132Second, image is a higher-level construct than interpretation; and competency is a more useful construct (to us, at least) than was interaction, because there are some aspects of both image and competency that involve interaction.

133Third, it is difficult to think of another way to encompass SRV implications in a parsimonious fashion. (Remember Occam’s razor: The more parsimonious a theory is, the better or more elegant it is considered to be.) Other less parsimonious, less elegant ways can be thought of, such as the lower-order constructs of expectancies without reference to roles; authoritarianism and obedience; conditioning; or even “human differences,” such as was once commonly done in psychology under the rubric of “individual differences.” But some such explanations would be less related, others overlapping, and overall less efficient and elegant in explaining the reality of social devaluation, what happens to societally devalued people, and what can be done about it. Therefore, these lower-level ways of thinking would have formed a less powerful and less elegant version of SRV theory—though not necessarily an invalid one.


  • 5 Since this presentation was given, there has been further thinking on the ways in which roles can b (...)

134With all the foregoing as background, we can now begin to apply this knowledge to specific actions that are social role-valorizing. There are three major and distinct ways in which the roles of devalued people can be positively “valorized.”5


135The first is enabling a party to assume or enter one or more valued roles that it did not previously possess, or at least new roles that are less devalued than the ones the party currently holds or would have been relegated to. That is, new roles are crafted or obtained for the party.


136With regard to individuals, a child may be enabled to take on the valued role of student. An adult may be enabled to enter and maintain the valued role of worker or employee.

137A person may be enabled to enter the role of church choir member, or to assume the role of homeowner, and some or all of its related roles as well, such as taxpayer, customer, renovator, gardener, and so on. The person may be enabled to fill roles that, if not fully valued, are at least less devalued than he or she might have held previously or would have ended up in. For instance, instead of being or becoming an idle consumer of unemployment benefits, an adult may be enabled to take on at least part-time paid work for a few hours or a few days a week, even if not full-time work. A person who holds a job that is not highly valued might be helped to find another job that is less devalued. Instead of being out of school entirely, a child may be enabled to attend school at least part of the day. Being a prisoner and a parolee are both devalued, but parolees are generally less devalued than prisoners, so it would be role-valorizing for a person to move from the role of prisoner to that of parolee. And so on.


138New valued roles, or at least less devalued ones, might also be created for members of an entire devalued class, perhaps by systemic action. For instance, the leaders of the French Revolution opened up new roles to the previously lowly and oppressed classes, including roles associated with running the government and the courts. The “Senior Olympics,” and similar athletic games that have been created for older people, enable members of this class to fill the valued roles of competent athlete and competitor. Legislation might be passed that gives to members of a disadvantaged class opportunities to enter roles that they had been denied. The U.S. civil rights legislation of the 1960s and 1970s opened up, for many racial minority members, roles related to schooling, jobs, places to live, and “consumership” from which they had previously been excluded.

139This first strategy of role valorization is usually the most accessible one and also presents the greatest number of opportunities.


140The second major way of role valorization is to do things that enhance the value attributed to those roles that are already filled by an individual, or by members of a class. This may be done via image and interpretation, or by adding valued functions to the role. All of these things help the incumbent of even less valued roles to be perceived more positively by others.


141The image of a role that an individual holds can be improved. For instance, valued titles may be given to a person’s role such as “office assistant” instead of clerk. (Of course, one should avoid being outright deceptive, or even confusing and misleading.) A handicapped member of a Christian congregation may be interpreted to other members of the congregation in an even more enhancing fashion as the one who is closest to the identity of the so-called “Hidden Christ.” A person who is in the devalued sick role may be enabled to put on street clothes during the day, rather than go around in nightclothes or a hospital gown all day. Even though the person may still be in the sick role, he or she will be perceived less negatively as a result. An adult who has been cast in the eternal child role might be dressed in very age-appropriate fashion and served in a highly adult-appearing setting, even if the person continues to engage in childish activities and to behave childishly.

142Roles that a person already fills may also be enhanced by adding to them valued and important functions that require competency. For instance, a person in the role of assistant to an athletic coach may be given some of the valued tasks usually carried out by the coach. A role that is mainly ceremonial may be given additional functions that are actually productive and contributive—more “real,” one might say. For instance, an honorary chairman might not only open and close meetings, but also be consulted and cast the decisive vote on split decisions.


143Things can be done to enhance the value attributed to those social roles typically held by many members of an entire class of persons at value risk, so that the individual members of that class benefit even when nothing more is done on behalf of any one specific member. For instance, one could give positive interpretation to those laboring roles usually occupied by lowly classes, instead of interpreting such roles as degrading. This is exactly what some of the more radical Marxist nations did, such as Communist China and Vietnam: They exalted laboring roles even over intellectual ones, and therefore also laboring people over intellectuals. This strategy went beyond mere interpretation and included equalization of payment to people such as laborers and physicians.

144A good example of the systematic valorizing of roles already occupied by lowly classes have been certain efforts by artists to illuminate the positive elements in such roles. For instance, in his paintings, drawings, and especially sculptures, the Belgian artist Constantin Meunier (1831-1905) depicted the lowly working classes at their labors in a very dignifying fashion. He had much impact because he was a good artist and widely acclaimed. Less skilled or esteemed artists might have had much less impact, but even they can still make a similar contribution, as evidenced by so much of Soviet art in the 1920s and 1930s. Regardless of what one might think of it as art, it did depict laboring people, country folk, and their work in a highly valued, even exalted fashion.

145The English writer Charles Dickens (1812-1870) made similar portrayals and interpretations in his writings. The impairments and afflictions of handicapped and poor people were never denied, nor was their lowliness, but he interpreted them in a positive light and even identified some of the positive elements within the less valued roles that they might fill, such as the positive elements (e.g., innocence) in the child role.

146Or, take the fact that in North America, it is primarily poor people who live in government-subsidized public housing. Being a tenant of public housing is not a valued role, a situation made worse by the fact that such subsidy is provided only for people to live in specially constructed housing, which is not only segregated but also congregated, located in parts of town where no one else wants to live if they can help it, often poorly constructed, often poorly maintained, and so forth. The perceived value of the role of publicly-supported tenants as a class would be enhanced if some of the following things were done.

  1. Instead of constructing special housing into which such people are gathered, subsidies could be provided for poor people to live in ordinary housing that is already available throughout the community.

  2. Even if new housing had to be constructed, it could be dispersed throughout a community, for example, by locating small units in many neighborhoods instead of large units in a few.

  3. Making public housing more attractive, and keeping it well-maintained.

  4. Keeping out the drug dealers and street gangs that in recent decades have so often taken over congregate public housing projects.

  5. Giving the tenants greater responsibility for, and authority and control over, the running of the housing.

  6. Making other demands for adaptive and responsible behavior by tenants of such housing.

147Doing any of these things might not mean that poor tenants of publicly supported housing would escape devalued identity, but they would probably be much less devalued. (Also, doing any of these things probably would not cost any more than public housing already does, though cost is not an SRV issue.) Representatives of a devalued class could also be shown in valued roles in the news and entertainment media, thus trying to create positive expectancies in viewers’ minds about that class as a whole.


148A third way to enhance the role perception of a person or class at risk of devaluation is for valued people to take on the characteristic for which the person or class at issue would be devalued. In this way, the negative imagery associated with the characteristic is apt to be diminished, because the characteristic has become associated with valued people, and their positive value rubs off a bit onto the otherwise devalued characteristic. An example with which most readers would be familiar is what happened with the appearance and dress of men in the 1970s and 1980s in most of the Western world. Up until the late 1960s, men who wore their hair any longer than their ears, or who wore sideburns, or who wore scraggly beards, or who wore certain jewelry, were very much at risk of devaluation, especially if they did not fill highly valued roles that could compensate for these aspects of appearance that were then perceived as bizarre and uncouth. However, through the 1970s and 1980s, more and more men began to wear their hair long, to grow mustaches and beards, and to sport jewelry such as earrings. Even highly valued men began to do so, and once this happened, the negative imagery and devaluation that had been associated with these appearance features greatly decreased.

149In the same way, if valued people adopt other devalued characteristics, the characteristic itself—and the people who have it—are apt to become less devalued. For instance, a child went bald as a result of chemotherapy he was receiving against cancer. When this happened, all his male classmates, and the male teacher, shaved their own heads so that he would not stand out in a negative way from them, thereby minimizing his image loss and raising the value attributed to baldheadedness. Similarly, a man shaved his own head when his fiancée lost her hair to chemotherapy, so that she would not be embarrassed by it. And in a 1960 Spanish film El Cochecito (The Little Coach), a man who does not need a wheelchair to get around nonetheless obtains one, so that he can cavort with his mobility-impaired friends who do have to use such vehicles. If valued people who did not need wheelchairs to get around began to use them, and especially if they began to practically live in them (as some physically handicapped people do), then the use of a wheelchair would certainly become less devalued.

150Because SRV addresses (a) the “up-valuing” of the roles already held by people at value-risk (via the second strategy explained above), (b) embedding such people into new roles that are more valued (the first strategy), and (c) improving the social value attached to otherwise devalued characteristics (the third strategy), one should really use the broad term “valorizing” (as in role valorizing or role valorization) when referring to any of these avenues of enhancing people’s roles.

151It should also be clear by now that these measures will be cumulative, that is, the greater the number of valued roles a party enters, and/or the more valued (or less devalued) any of these roles are, and/or the more that valued people assume devalued characteristics, the more the party is apt to be positively valued (or less devalued) by others, and the more the party is likely to have access to the good things of life—or at least, the likelihood is diminished that bad things will be done to that party.


152Social Role Valorization is taught in most training workshops by means of so-called “themes,” that is, motifs or issues that recur throughout all the implications of SRV. However, most of these themes should not be seen as “being” or constituting SRV. Rather, most of them are simply pedagogic, heuristic devices for helping people to understand SRV, to learn it, tie its various elements together, (very importantly) to organize the content of the theory, and then to figure out how it applies to specific situations. But SRV does not stand or fall as a valid social science theory on the basis of any single one of these themes and how it is taught, and it is certainly possible to use other ways to teach and learn SRV and to interpret the implications.

153We will say more about this after reviewing the themes, which are as follows.


154This theme teaches the reality and dynamics of unconsciousness on the level of both individual humans and entire collectivities. It explains why there is so much unconsciousness in human functioning, and that certain things are less apt to be available to conscious awareness (e.g., due to repression) than others. As regards social devaluation and SRV specifically, the teaching then explains that identifying certain kinds of people as devalued, and maintaining them in devalued status, plays certain real functions in society that escape the awareness of almost all the affected parties, including devalued people themselves, those who serve them, their advocates, and societal institutions. Stress is placed on the importance of attaining consciousness of the relevant issues (such as of the heightened vulnerability of devalued people, as addressed in the second theme) as a crucial precondition to selecting appropriate role-valorizing measures.


155The “conservatism corollary” of SRV states that the more a person or group is devalued or at risk of devaluation, the more important it is to (a) not further add to the party’s vulnerability, (b) reduce those vulnerabilities and devaluations that already exist, and (c) compensate for existing vulnerabilities and devaluations by adding value and competencies wherever possible. The conservatism corollary raises consciousness (as emphasized in the first theme) about the fact that for many reasons, devalued people are much more vulnerable than valued ones to all sorts of bad things happening to them, in good part because they are devalued, and they are not uncommonly reduced in important competencies that could protect them. For this reason, those who want to see devalued people become more valued, and who want good rather than bad things to happen to them, need to bend over backward to make sure that vulnerable people do not become yet more vulnerable, and that those vulnerabilities that already exist are reduced and/or compensated for. Among other things, this often means that it is not good enough to settle for what is typical or normative where vulnerable people are concerned; instead, one must aim for what is the more or most highly valued and is apt to bring the most value to them.


156This theme emphasizes that the more that people identify with each other—that is, the more they see themselves “in” the other, or the more they see the other as similar to themselves—the more they will want good things to happen to each other and the more they will act to bring or give good things to each other. It is then explained that in order for devalued people to become more valued in society, it is important to help valued people identify with devalued people, and to help devalued people identify with people of adaptive identity so that they will be more likely to imitate them (explained later) and be more able to fill valued roles. Ways in which people can be helped to identify with each other are then elucidated, including helping people to be more “approachable,” trying to ensure that the contact between people is positively experienced by each party, and helping each party to see the world through the other’s eyes, to experience the world the way the other party does, and to empathize and sympathize with each other.


157Any service measure should be relevant to real, important needs of the people to whom it is addressed, and more fundamental or more urgent needs of people should be addressed before lesser needs. As well, whatever means are used to address people’s needs should be as powerful as possible, that is, capable of effectively and efficiently addressing the need at issue, rather than being wasteful of people’s time and growth potential. Model coherency combines these two concepts of relevance and potency, and can be formulated in very simplified form as bringing together valid assumptions, relevant service content, and potent service means, with the means being such that they avoid creating a new need or magnifying a preexisting one, which could diminish either service relevance or potency, or even do more harm than good. Model coherency also requires that service measures should fit together in a way that both (a) matches the culturally valued analogue (that is, the way in which similar needs are addressed for valued people in society), and (b) is harmonious and makes sense. For instance, it is not harmonious to address nonmedical needs with medical means; doing so is apt to reduce at least potency if not relevance, and may also violate culturally valued analogues.


158This theme explains that much human communication uses imagery, that images and symbols convey messages, and that these meanings and messages are received and processed by those who are exposed to them even if the receivers are unaware of it (as explained in the first theme). This theme also explains that when meaning-laden images get juxtaposed or attached to people, then the meanings and messages of the images also get associated, generalized, or transferred to those people, who come to be seen as embodying in their identity the message conveyed by the image. For instance, people who are consistently juxtaposed to images of childishness and triviality are apt to be seen—at least eventually—as childish themselves, as “lightweight” and not to be taken seriously. As regards SRV action, this theme stresses that the ways in which devalued people present themselves and are presented to others affect how others will value them; what others will do to, for, and vis-à-vis them; and what roles they will get cast into or be allowed to enter. Thus, all the imagery associated with societally devalued people—from the direct personal level all the way up to the broad societal level—should convey positively valued messages and meanings.


159People are very strongly affected—indeed, often controlled—by what has been put into their minds about what certain people are like, and what can and should be expected of them. This theme emphasizes that if what is put into people’s minds about devalued people is devaluing (e.g., that they are subhuman, menaces, as good as dead), and/or if it is low-expecting (e.g., that they cannot grow and learn, will “always be like that,” are capable of very little or of only a few very specific competencies), then the perceivers will do things that reflect these mind-sets and expectancies so that they become self-fulfilling prophecies. The perceivers will fail to provide challenging environments and opportunities if they do not believe that (devalued) people can benefit from them. On the other hand, if people believe and expect that (devalued) people are capable of learning to fill valued roles, even very demanding ones, and that they are capable of a great deal of growth and performance, then perceivers are more likely to create the conditions that will elicit growth and performance, and that will foster (devalued) people into valued roles.

160This theme also emphasizes that all human beings, regardless of their age or degree of impairment, do in fact possess a tremendous capacity for growth, though this is hardly recognized and elicited, especially not where devalued people are concerned. This assumption about the capacity of all human beings to develop is the cornerstone of what is called “the developmental model” or a developmental approach. The developmental model was first made prominent with the publication of Changing Patterns in Residential Services for the Mentally Retarded (Kugel & Wolfensberger, 1969).


161The social reality covered in this theme can be stated simply as: People will generally live up (or down) to what is expected of them. Role expectancies are communicated via (a) the settings in which a person functions, is served, or is forced to occupy; (b) the other people with whom a person is associated; (c) the activities and behaviors that are permitted, structured for, or required of a person; (d) the language that is used to and about people, their settings, and their activities; and (e) other imagery that is associated with people. Thus, if devalued people are to be more competent, and/or to fill more valued social roles, then expectancies must be conveyed to them—via the five above communicators of role demands—that they do in fact become more competent and/or enact the competencies they already possess, and that they fill valued rather than devalued social roles.


162This theme emphasizes the importance of (a) reducing any obstacles that exist to learning, growth, development, competency enhancement, and its exercise; and (b) enlarging a person’s actual functional repertoire of knowledge, skills, habits, and disciplines. This includes, among other things, correctly identifying what a person needs and then enabling, mediating, or conveying what is really needed; individualization of approach and service; grouping people in a way that maximizes the likelihood of positive rather than negative intragroup imitation, of positive rather than negative expectancies for the group as a whole, and of the ability of servers and others to deal positively with the group as a whole; and facilitating growth and development via the power of the physical environment itself.


163This theme stresses that imitation is a human universal and one of the most powerful ways that people learn. Its SRV relevance is that the models for societally devalued people should be as positively valued and competent as possible, if such persons are to become more competent and assume valued roles. This implies structuring groupings so as to facilitate positive intragroup imitation, increasing positive interpersonal identification between devalued people and those they should imitate (since people will want to imitate those they identify with), providing a surfeit of positive models in the environments of devalued people, encouraging positive modeling, and being a good model oneself.


164This theme emphasizes that the more people participate in valued society, the more they will learn what is valued by society, the more competent they are apt to become in it and the more they are likely to be able to fill valued roles. Also, social integration of devalued people—if it is experienced as pleasant by the assimilators in valued society—can help to make society more tolerant and accepting. This theme delineates those physical features of a setting and broader “programmatic” features that can facilitate (or conversely, hinder) the social integration of people; how to actually bring about real social integration (not just physical presence); and what some limitations are to full social integration and participation.

165Social Role Valorization deals with the issue of valued social participation and personal social integration on an empirical basis, that is, on the basis of rationales that can be—and largely have been—tested by experience. However, people may also hold ideological rationales in support of social integration of societally devalued people and may advance these regardless of issues of evidence.


166Certain themes are well established, and interesting and extremely useful in their own right, even apart from Normalization/SRV theory. For instance, knowledge of the reality and power of modeling and imitation, and of the dynamics of human unconsciousness, certainly did not derive from Normalization or SRV teaching and thinking. However, some others of the themes have a more intimate theoretical and historical tie to Normalization/SRV. For instance, prior to the advent of Normalization, one would not find much in the social science literature that promoted the integration of devalued people, or spelled out the rationales for it and the “how to” of doing it. Relatedly, at least Scandinavian Normalization practice was long content—at least in its early years—to develop normalized but nonintegrated settings and arrangements, on the assumption that this met the desideratum of making available to the handicapped “patterns and conditions of everyday life which are as close as possible to the norms and patterns of the mainstream of society” (Nirje, 1969, p. 181).

167Also, the conservatism corollary is very closely tied to Normalization/SRV, and even more so to SRV than to Normalization. One may find less on this theme in the social science literature than on other SRV themes, though there is a great deal of support for it in folk wisdom, such as sayings on the difference between what the privileged classes and the lowly classes can get away with. It was largely Wolfensberger’s Normalization formulation of the 1980s that increasingly elaborated the reality that people who are valued are much less damaged by association with devalued entities and sites than are people who are already devalued, that devalued people have vastly more to gain by value enhancement than do people who are already valued, and that they often also have more to lose by (continued) value degradation than valued people.

168Thus, the themes are a very useful way of capturing the many implications or thrusts of SRV, of analyzing and supporting its implications, and of conveying to learners major action strategies or action spheres. But conceivably, SRV could also be taught without any reference to the themes. For instance, SRV could be taught by just focusing on image and competency, or by sorting its implications into a 2 x 3 schema that identifies image and competency implications on three different levels of social organization (see Wolfensberger, 1992, p. 50)—much as Wolfensberger’s Normalization construct used to be taught prior to about 1980 without invoking the themes. In the same way, the common “wounds” of devalued people (discussed above in section 3.5.2 “Common Hurtful Experiences That Befall Societally Devalued People Because They Are Devalued”) have proven to be an extremely useful way of capturing the realities of devaluation as it is experienced by devalued people. But again, the realities of devaluation could be taught in different ways, much like they used to be taught under the sociological concept of “deviancy” in Normalization teaching of the 1970s.

169However, one advantage of using the themes to teach SRV (in contrast to constructing the theory) is that they bring out the complexity of many issues, including that of the recipient grouping, since grouping is examined from the perspective of all the themes, and each one sheds a different light on it. Without the themes, it is difficult to convincingly teach people about the complexity of grouping and the difficulty of making wise grouping decisions. This probably accounts for the fact that grouping issues are still extremely poorly handled in most human services.

170The fact that the themes are merely a heuristic device, as mentioned earlier, is underlined by the following. (a) One might have identified more themes, and perhaps this will happen some day, though it is difficult to see how there might be fewer. (b) The theme of imagery is actually only an elaboration and recapitulation of one of the two major avenues (image enhancement and competency enhancement) for achieving valued roles. If the themes were meant to constitute SRV rather than to illustrate and teach it, the inclusion of imagery among the themes would be illogical. Competency enhancement is also thoroughly embedded in several of the other themes, for example, the developmental model, role expectancies, imitation, and integration.

171Another way of clarifying the difference between SRV itself and the themes that may be used to teach and learn it is to imagine SRV theory as an integral whole, similar to the human body. The human body may be better understood, and important realities about how the body functions can be taught by identifying various of its subsystems, such as the respiratory system, the endocrine system, the circulatory system, the skeletal system, the muscular system, and so on. However, these various systems could only be said to “constitute” the human body in a very narrow sense. And it would certainly be possible for people to learn about the body in different ways, for example, by looking at the head, the neck, the legs and feet, and so on. Which particular way of teaching and learning about the body is employed would depend on such things as who is doing the teaching, who is learning, and what roles vis-à-vis the human body those learners will have to carry out (e.g., are they going to be neurosurgeons or are they going to teach children in the primary grades about the body?).


172In about 1992, it was recognized that SRV decisions could all be formulated in terms of an “if this, then that” sequence (Wolfensberger, 1995) and that such a formulation would be very helpful in clarifying the nature and boundaries of SRV as an empirical theory and the decisions that people would have to make based on the knowledge that SRV provides.

173There are four ways of formulating the “if this, then that” statements relevant to SRV.

  1. If X is done, then one must expect that Y will occur. For instance, if devalued adults are consistently presented as childlike, via their settings, appearances, and activities, then observers are apt to see them as “eternal children” and respond to them as if they were. If devalued people are congregated together in numbers that are greater than the surrounding valued community can easily assimilate, then the devalued people are apt to be rejected. If the images that are associated with devalued people and services to them convey messages of animality, menace, contagion, death, and decay, then valued people will certainly want to distantiate themselves from such devalued people and may endorse bad things being done to them.

  2. If Y has already occurred, then X has probably been done earlier. For instance, if certain devalued people are now seen as subhuman or nonhuman, and their being put to death is seen as legitimate, then it is very likely that devalued people had been interpreted as nonhuman, and had been consistently, systematically, and massively surrounded with subhuman and nonhuman imagery.

  3. If one wants Y to occur, then one will probably have to first do X; and, conversely, if one wants to avoid Y, then X will probably have to be done. For example, if one wants people to be seen as similar to their age peers, then one has to present them to others in ways that are consistent with their age, and that heighten the things they have in common with their age mates. If one wants people to be accepted and positively integrated into society, then one must do the things that enable them to be present and participative in ways that are not perceived as threatening and that help other people to be receptive and welcoming. If one does not want people in society to view a certain devalued group as a menace, then one must not do things that interpret that group or its members as a threat. And so on.

  4. If one concludes that doing X in order to obtain Y is too costly to either oneself or the party at issue (i.e., that the price to be paid for Y is too high), then one may have to modify or even sacrifice the goal Y. For example, if one is unwilling to use culturally valued means and adopt culturally valued imagery in relation to some party, then one has to accept that it is very unlikely that one is going to win acceptance and positive valuation of that party from that culture. If one decides to reject the dominant society’s values, norms, and good things of life, then one cannot expect to be accepted and treated well by and in that society.

174The formulation of SRV and its implications as constituting an “if this, then that” series of logical decisions has several benefits. One—unfortunately very belated—benefit is that it may lay to rest a lot of futile controversy that has plagued Normalization and SRV teaching and implementation efforts in the past. This is because the “if this, then that” conceptualization forces people to determine logically three things: first, what it is they want to achieve and avoid (e.g., for themselves, for the devalued people they serve or advocate for); second, what empiricism has shown is and is not likely to attain this goal, or at least is and is not consistent with attaining this goal; and third, what it is that they are willing to do. This illuminates more clearly the boundaries between the empirical theory of SRV, and any supra-empirical values and worldviews that might suggest that a certain outcome or action course, and not another, is preferable, and why. It therefore forces the debate about SRV-related issues into its proper domain: either that of empiricism—that is, what do we know tends to work, what do we know does not work—which is where SRV lies, or that of “religion.” In the empirical domain, we can examine evidence for specific assertions, for instance, how does congregating devalued people together affect the likelihood that the surrounding value society will accept and assimilate them; do childish activities, routines, and appearances for adults improve, harm, or have no effect on how they are perceived by others. On the supra-empirical level of religion are such questions as whether certain people ought to be valued or devalued, whether certain creatures are human, whether it is a good or bad thing to interpret certain people as subhuman, whether certain kinds of people deserve bad treatment, whether one should cultivate societal acceptance of a rejected and mistreated group, whether society has an obligation to its weakest members, and so on. Even if people controvert the empiricism, this is a level of controversy that is more amenable to rational resolution than controversy on the level of ideology and religion.

175Of course, religious and ideological decisions must be made in human services. But such decisions must be made before, so to speak, one undertakes to apply Normalization or SRV. That is, one must decide whether and on what basis to value people who are handicapped, poor, foreign, or different in any negatively valued way, and that is a religious or ideological decision (e.g., should one value them because it is morally right, because whatever is my god and religion says so). Only if one decides that such people should be positively valued does Normalization/SRV then make any sense, because it can tell one what to do that has the best chance of bringing that about.

176Thus, if one wants societally devalued people, or those who are at risk of societal devaluation, to be more positively valued, then one must do those things that will help others and society as a whole to see them in a more positive light, and SRV can tell one on the basis of empirical social science what many of the things are that need to be done to bring about that desired end. But SRV cannot provide one with a reason for wanting devalued people to be valued in the first place. Only “a religion” can do that.



Fletcher, J. (1972). Indicators of humanhood: A tentative profile of man. Hastings Center Report, 2, 1-4.

Fletcher, J. (1975). The “right” to live and the “right” to die. In M. Kohl (Ed.), Beneficent euthanasia (pp. 44-53). Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.

Freedman, J. L., Carlsmith, J. M., & Sears, D. O. (1970). Social psychology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Kugel, R. B., & Wolfensberger, W. (Eds.). (1969). Changing patterns in residential services for the mentally retarded. Washington, DC: President’s Committee on Mental Retardation.

Nirje, B. (1969). The Normalization principle and its human management implications. In R. B. Kugel& W. Wolfensberger (Eds.), Changing patterns in residential services for the mentally retarded (pp. 179-195). Washington, DC: President’s Committee on Mental Retardation.

Wolfensberger, W. (1972). The principle of Normalization in human services. Toronto: National Institute on Mental Retardation.

Wolfensberger, W. (1977). The Normalization principle and some major implications to architectural-environmental design. In M. J. Bednar (Ed.), Barriers in the built environment (pp. 135-169). Stroudsburg, PA: Dowden, Hutchinson & Ross.

Wolfensberger, W. (1978). The Normalization principle and some major implications to architectural-environmental design. Atlanta, GA: Georgia Association for Retarded Citizens.

Wolfensberger, W. (1983). Social Role Valorization: A proposed new term for the principle of Normalization. Mental Retardation, 21 (6), 234-239.

Wolfensberger, W. (1984). A reconceptualization of Normalization as Social Role Valorization. (Canadian) Mental Retardation, 34(2), 22-26.

Wolfensberger, W. (1985). Social Role Valorization: A new insight, and a new term, for Normalization. Australian Association for the Mentally Retarded Journal, 9(1), 4-11.

Wolfensberger, W. (1989). The new genocide of handicapped and afflicted people. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University, Training Institute for Human Service Planning, Leadership and Change Agentry.

Wolfensberger, W. (1991a). A brief introduction to Social Role Valorization as a high-order concept for structuring human services. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University, Training Institute for Human Service Planning, Leadership and Change Agentry.

Wolfensberger, W. (1991b). Die Bewertung der sozialen Rollen: Eine kurze Einführung zur Bewertung der sozialen Rollen als Grundbegriff beim Aufbau von Sozialdiensten. (C. Agad & A. Bianchet, trans.) Genf (Geneva), Schweiz (Switzerland): Éditions des Deux Continents.

Wolfensberger, W. (1991C). La Valorisation des Rôles Sociaux: Introduction à un concept de référence pour l’organisation des services. (A. Dupont, V. Keller-Revaz, J.-P. Nicoletti & L. Vaney, trans.) Genève, Switzerland: Éditions des Deux Continents.

Wolfensberger, W. (1991d). La Valorizzazione del Ruolo Sociale: Una breve introduzione al concetto di valorizzazione del ruolo sociale inteso come concetto prioritario per la strutturazione dei servizi alle persone (M. Costantino & A. Domina, trans.) Geneva, Switzerland: Éditions des Deux Continents.

Wolfensberger, W. (1992). A brief introduction to Social Role Valorization as a high-order concept for structuring human services (2nd ed., rev.). Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University, Training Institute for Human Service Planning, Leadership and Change Agentry.

Wolfensberger, W. (1995). An “if this, then that” formulation of decisions related to Social Role Valorization as a better way of interpreting it to people. Mental Retardation, 33(3), 163-169.

Wolfensberger, W. (1998). A brief introduction to Social Role Valorization as a high-order concept for addressing the plight of socially devalued people, and for structuring human services (3rd ed., rev.). Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University, Training Institute for Human Service Planning, Leadership and Change Agentry.

Wolfensberger, W., & Thomas, S. (1994). An analysis of the client role from a Social Role Valorization perspective. SRV-VRS: The International Social Role Valorization Journal/La Revue Internationale de la Valorisation des Rôles Sociaux, 1(1), 3-8.


1 This chapter has incorporated not only the presentation in Ottawa in May 1994, but also some SRV theory elements that were developed in early 1995.

2 Since this presentation was made in May 1994, there has been further conceptual development in SRV, including further refinements in the definition. As of 1998, the most current definition of SRV is “the application of what science has to tell us about the defense or upgrading of the socially perceived value of people’s roles” (see Wolfensberger, 1998, p. 58).

3 In Wolfensberger (1998), a clearer distinction was made between the bad things that commonly happen to devalued people—the typical “wounds”—and the results or expressions of deep woundedness. See Wolfensberger, 1998, pp. 12-24.

4 The 1998 SRV monograph (Wolfensberger, 1998) contains a more elaborate version of this feedback loop (p. 75).

5 Since this presentation was given, there has been further thinking on the ways in which roles can be positively valorized. Six ways have now been identified, namely: (a) valorizing the roles that a party already holds; (b) averting the party’s entry into (additional) devalued roles; (c) enabling the party to enter positively valued new roles, or to regain positively valued roles that were once held; (d) extricating a party from its current devalued roles; (e) reducing the negativity of the roles the party currently holds; and (f) substituting less devalued new roles for the more devalued roles a party currently holds. This is elaborated in Wolfensberger, 1998, pp. 84-95.

Table des illustrations

Fichier image/jpeg, 296k
Fichier image/jpeg, 32k
Fichier image/jpeg, 32k
Fichier image/jpeg, 28k
Fichier image/jpeg, 28k

© Les Presses de l’Université d’Ottawa | University of Ottawa Press, 1999

Conditions d’utilisation :

Cette publication numérique est issue d’un traitement automatique par reconnaissance optique de caractères.


Volume papier
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search