Socialization is a lifelong learning process through which an individual develops a sense of self and learns how to be a member of a given society. Primary socialization typically occurs during childhood, while secondary socialization occurs later and throughout life.
Discussions of socialization must address how much of what we do is shaped by biological or social factors, and the role of free will. Determinism is the belief that an individual’s behaviour, values, and other personal characteristics are caused by a specific factor (biological or social), while free will refers to agency, or the capacity to challenge the social elements that influence our lives.
We distinguish between two types of determinism, also referred to as the “nature versus nurture” debate. Representing the “nature” side of the debate is biological determinism, which states that the greater part of who we are is determined by our approximately 26,000 genes. On the “nurture” side of the debate we find social or cultural determinism, particularly behaviourism, which emphasizes that human behaviour is not biologically determined, but taught and learned through behaviour modification. Edward Thorndike called this process law of effect. Desired behaviours are rewarded and thus reinforced while undesired behaviours are ignored or punished, hence likely abandoned.
The sociological study of socialization at times draws on the work of psychologists, such as Sigmund Freud. Freud’s theory of socialization balanced the biological and social aspects of human personality. The ID represents our biological impulses (nature), while the Superego is internalized societal norms through socialization (nurture). The Ego is the mediator between our biological impulses and societal norms.
Canadian sociologist Dennis Wrong critiqued behaviourism, arguing that individuals do not passively absorb socializing messages, but rather have the agency (free will) to resist and reject socializing messages. In this view, people do not automatically conform to the lessons of socialization but are free to (re)interpret, reshape, and resist them.
Two theorists, George Herbert Mead and Charles Cooley, developed sociological explanations of the development of self. George Herbert Mead, a symbolic interactionist, argued that children internalize norms and values through socialization by significant others (parents, siblings, friends) and generalized others (the larger social world). Mead argued that the socialization of a child unfolds as a developmental sequence in three stages. During the preparatory stage, children learn to imitate significant others. During the play stage, children engage in role-taking and assume the perspective of significant others. Finally, during the game stage, children consider simultaneously the perspective of several roles and learn to assume the perspective of the generalized other. Charles Horton Cooley, another symbolic interactionist, argued the self develops through what he called the looking-glass self. He explained that the individual’s self-image is based on how a person thinks they are viewed by others, this theory includes:
- How you imagine you appear to others;
- How you imagine those others judge your appearance; and,
- How you feel as a result (proud, ashamed, etc.).
The process of socialization is facilitated by different agents of socialization. These socializing agents are groups that have a significant impact on an individual’s socialization. The family, for example, is the first and most powerful socializing agent. The peer group, defined as a social group that shares key social characteristics such as age, social position, and interests, it often socializes an individual through peer pressure. The education system is another powerful socializing agent and is often the first source of information that children receive about social groups other than their own. Finally, mass media are key socializing agents, but their effects on individual behaviours are contested.
Resocialization is another aspect of the socialization process. It occurs when an individual transition into a new social environment. This process involves learning, and also unlearning, behaviours, beliefs, and values. It can be either voluntary (e.g., undergoing a religious conversion) marked by a rite of passage (e.g., a confirmation) or involuntary (e.g., entering prison). Involuntary resocialization usually occurs within what Erving Goffman called total institutions, where degradation ceremonies strip a person of their individuality. Sometimes voluntary and involuntary resocialization may occur simultaneously as in the programs for alcoholism or obesity.
After reading chapter four, you will be able to:
- Distinguish between primary and secondary socialization.
- Contrast biological and social/cultural determinism.
- Explain the relevance of Sigmund Freud’s ideas to the sociological study of socialization.
- Distinguish between the three different parts of the mind as defined by Freud.
- Explain Mead’s and Cooley’s theories of the development of the self.
- Discuss the role of agency in the context of socialization.
- Describe different agents of socialization, provide examples, and their role in primary and secondary socialization.
- Illustrate the difference between voluntary and involuntary socialization using examples.