Chapter 5. Socialization
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Figure 5.1. Socialization is how we learn the norms and beliefs of our society. From our earliest family and play experiences, we are made aware of societal values and expectations. (Photo courtesy of Seattle Municipal Archives/Flickr)

Learning Objectives

5.1. Theories of Self Development

Describe the self as a social structure.Explain the four stages of role development in child socialization.Analyze the formation of a gender schema in the socialization of gender roles.

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5.2. Why Socialization Matters

Analyze the importance of socialization for individuals and society.Explain the nature versus nurture debate.Describe both the conformity of behaviour in society and the existence of individual uniqueness.

5.3. Agents of Socialization

Learn the roles of families and peer groups in socialization.Understand how we are socialized through formal institutions like schools, workplaces, and the government.

5.4. Socialization Across the Life Course

Explain how people are socialized into new roles at age-related transition points.Describe when and how resocialization occurs.

Introduction to Socialization

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Figure 5.2. Victor, the wild boy or “feral child” of Aveyron, France grew up alone in the woods until age 12. He was only able to learn rudimentary language and social skills. Victor was the subject of the Francois Truffault film L’Enfant Sauvage (1970). (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

In the summer of 2005, police detective Mark Holste followed an investigator from the Department of Children and Families to a home in Plant City, Florida. They were there to look into a statement from the neighbour concerning a shabby house on Old Sydney Road. A small girl was reported peering from one of its broken windows. This seemed odd because no one in the neighbourhood had seen a young child in or around the home, which had been inhabited for the past three years by a woman, her boyfriend, and two adult sons.


Who Was the Mysterious Girl in the Window?

Entering the house, Detective Holste and his team were shocked. It was the worst mess they had ever seen: infested with cockroaches, smeared with feces and urine from both people and pets, and filled with dilapidated furniture and ragged window coverings.

Detective Holste headed down a hallway and entered a small room. That is where he found a little girl with big, vacant eyes staring into the darkness. A newspaper report later described the detective’s first encounter with the child:


She lay on a torn, moldy mattress on the floor. She was curled on her side … her ribs and collarbone jutted out … her black hair was matted, crawling with lice. Insect bites, rashes and sores pocked her skin…. She was naked — except for a swollen diaper.… Her name, her mother said, was Danielle. She was almost seven years old. (DeGregory, 2008)

Detective Holste immediately carried Danielle out of the home. She was taken to a hospital for medical treatment and evaluation. Through extensive testing, doctors determined that, although she was severely malnourished, Danielle was able to see, hear, and vocalize normally. Still, she would not look anyone in the eyes, did not know how to chew or swallow solid food, did not cry, did not respond to stimuli that would typically cause pain, and did not know how to communicate either with words or simple gestures such as nodding “yes” or “no.” Likewise, although tests showed she had no chronic diseases or genetic abnormalities, the only way she could stand was with someone holding onto her hands, and she “walked sideways on her toes, like a crab” (DeGregory, 2008).

What had happened to Danielle? Put simply: beyond the basic requirements for survival, she had been neglected. Based on their investigation, social workers concluded that she had been left almost entirely alone in rooms like the one where she was found. Without regular interaction—the holding, hugging, talking, the explanations and demonstrations given to most young children—she had not learned to walk or to speak, to eat or to interact, to play or even to understand the world around her. From a sociological point of view, Danielle had not had been socialized.

Socialization is the process through which people are taught to be proficient members of a society. It describes the ways that people come to understand societal norms and expectations, to accept society’s beliefs, and to be aware of societal values. It also describes the way people come to be aware of themselves and to reflect on the suitability of their behaviour in their interactions with others. Socialization occurs as people engage and disengage in a series of roles throughout life. Each role, like the role of son or daughter, student, friend, employee, etc., is defined by the behaviour expected of a person who occupies a particular position.

Socialization is not the same as socializing (interacting with others, like family, friends, and coworkers); to be precise, it is a sociological process that occurs through socializing. As Danielle’s story illustrates, even the most basic of human activities are learned. You may be surprised to know that even physical tasks like sitting, standing, and walking had not automatically developed for Danielle as she grew. Without socialization, Danielle had not learned about the material culture of her society (the tangible objects a culture uses): For example, she could not hold a spoon, bounce a ball, or use a chair for sitting. She also had not learned its nonmaterial culture, such as its beliefs, values, and norms. She had no understanding of the concept of family, did not know cultural expectations for using a bathroom for elimination, and had no sense of modesty. Most importantly, she hadn’t learned to use the symbols that make up language—through which we learn about who we are, how we fit with other people, and the natural and social worlds in which we live.

In the following sections, we will examine the importance of the complex process of socialization and learn how it takes place through interaction with many individuals, groups, and social institutions. We will explore how socialization is not only critical to children as they develop, but how it is a lifelong process through which we become prepared for new social environments and expectations in every stage of our lives. But first, we will turn to scholarship about self development, the process of coming to recognize a sense of a “self” that is then able to be socialized.

5.1. Theories of Self Development

Danielle’s case underlines an important point that sociologists make about socialization, namely that the human self does not emerge “naturally” as a process driven by biological mechanisms. What is a self? What does it mean to have a self? The self refers to a person’s distinct sense of identity. It is who we are for ourselves and who we are for others. It has consistency and continuity through time and a coherence that distinguishes us as persons. However, there is something always precarious and incomplete about the self. Selves change through the different stages of life; sometimes they do not measure up to the ideals we hold for ourselves or others, and sometimes they can be wounded by our interactions with others or thrown into crisis. As Zygmunt Bauman put it, one’s distinct sense of identity is a “postulated self,” a “horizon towards which I strive and by which I assess, censure and correct my moves” (2004). It is clear, however, that the self does not develop in the absence of socialization. The self is a social product.

The American sociologist George Herbert Mead is often seen as the founder of the school of symbolic interactionism in sociology, although he referred to himself a social behaviourist. His conceptualization of the self has been very influential. Mead defines the emergence of the self as a thoroughly social process: “The self, as that which can be an object to itself, is essentially a social structure, and it arises in social experience” (Mead, 1934).

In this description, you should notice first that the key quality of the self that Mead is concerned with is the ability to be reflexive or self-aware (i.e., to be an “object” to oneself). One can think about oneself, or feel how one is feeling. Second, this key quality of the self can only arise in a social context through social interactions with others. In Charles Horton Cooley’s concept of the “looking glass self,” others, and their attitudes towards us, are like mirrors in which we are able to see ourselves and formulate an idea of who we are (Cooley, 1902). Without others, or without society, the self does not exist: “t is impossible to conceive of a self arising outside of social experience” (Mead, 1934, p. 293).

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Figure 5.3. “What iss he, my preciouss?” Gollum in The Hobbit lived in isolation under the Misty Mountains for 500 years. To the degree that he had a coherent self, it was because he still had a robust and ongoing internalized conversation with the ring of power, his “precious.” (Image courtesy of Brenda Clarke/Flickr)

Even when the self is alone for extended periods of time (hermits, prisoners in isolation, etc.), an internal conversation goes on that would not be possible if the individual had not been socialized already. The examples of feral children like Victor of Aveyron or children like Danielle who have been raised under conditions of extreme social deprivation attest to the difficulties these individuals confront when trying to develop this reflexive quality of humanity. They often cannot use language, form intimate relationships, or play games. So socialization is not simply the process through which people learn the norms and rules of a society, it also is the process by which people become aware of themselves as they interact with others. It is the process through which people are able to become people in the first place.

The necessity for early social contact was demonstrated by the research of Harry and Margaret Harlow. From 1957–1963, the Harlows conducted a series of experiments studying how rhesus monkeys, which behave a lot like people, are affected by isolation as babies. They studied monkeys raised under two types of “substitute” mothering circumstances: a mesh and wire sculpture, or a soft terry cloth “mother.” The monkeys systematically preferred the company of a soft, terry cloth substitute mother (closely resembling a rhesus monkey) that was unable to feed them, to a mesh and wire mother that provided sustenance via a feeding tube. This demonstrated that while food was important, social comfort was of greater value (Harlow & Harlow, 1962; Harlow, 1971). Later experiments testing more severe isolation revealed that such deprivation of social contact led to significant developmental and social challenges later in life.

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Figure 5.4. Baby rhesus monkeys, like humans, need to be raised with social contact for healthy development. (Photo courtesy of Paul Asman and Jill Lenoble/Flickr)

Theories of Self Development

When we are born, we have a genetic makeup and biological traits. However, who we are as human beings develops through social interaction. Many scholars, both in the fields of psychology and sociology, have described the process of self development as a precursor to understanding how that “self” becomes socialized.

Sigmund Freud

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Figure 5.5. The Austrian Sigmund Freud was the founder of psychoanalysis (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) was one of the most influential modern scientists to put forth a theory about how people develop a sense of self. He believed that personality and sexual development were closely linked, and he divided the maturation process into universal psychosexual stages: oral, anal, phallic, latency, and genital. Each stage involves the child’s discovery and passage through the bodily pleasures linked to breastfeeding, toilet training, and sexual awareness (Freud, 1905).

Key to Freud’s approach to child development was his emphasis on tracing the formations of desire and pleasure in a child’s life. The child is seen to be at the centre of a tricky negotiation between internal, instinctual drives for gratification (the pleasure principle) and external, social demands that the child repress those drives in order to conform to the rules and regulations of civilization (the reality principle). Failure to resolve the traumatic tensions and impasses of childhood psychosexual development results in emotional and psychological consequences throughout adulthood. For example, according to Freud the failure of a child to properly engage in or disengage from a specific stage of development results in predictable outcomes later in life. An adult with an oral fixation may indulge in overeating or binge drinking. An anal fixation may produce a neat freak (hence the term “anal retentive”), while a person stuck in the phallic stage may be promiscuous or emotionally immature.

Psychologist Erik Erikson (1902–1994) created a theory of personality development based on the work of Freud. However, Erikson was also interested in the social and cultural dimensions of Freud’s child development schema (1963). Following Freud, he noted that each stage of psychosexual child development was associated with the formation of basic emotional structures in adulthood. The outcome of the oral stage will determine whether someone is trustful or distrustful as an adult; the outcome of the anal stage, whether they will be confident and generous or ashamed and doubtful; the outcome of the genital stage, whether they will be full of initiative or guilt.

Erikson retained Freud’s idea that the stages of child development were universal, but he believed that different cultures handled them differently. Child-raising techniques varied in line with the dominant social formation of their societies. So, for example, the tradition in the communally-based Sioux First Nation was not to wean infants but to breastfeed until the infant lost interest. This tradition created trust between the infant and his or her mother, and eventually trust between the child and the tribal group as a whole. On the other hand, modern industrial societies practice early weaning of children, which leads to a more distrustful character structure. Children develop a possessive disposition toward objects that carries with them through to adulthood. The result of early weaning is that the child is eager to get things and grab hold of things in lieu of the experience of generosity and comfort in being held.

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Societies like the Sioux, in which individuals rely heavily on each other and on the group to survive in a hostile environment, will handle child training in a different manner and with different outcomes than societies based on individualism, competition, self-reliance, and self-control (Erikson, 1963).