Unit 4 – Socialization « The Socjournal


At the end of this unit, students will be able to:

1.  Define socialization.

2.  Be able to identify agents of socialization and their impact on the development of the human individual.

3.  Understand some of the mechanisms that agents of socialization use to socialize and control behaviour.

4.  Understand and analyse your own socialization with an eye towards identifying the social boxes you have adopted.

5.  Understand the importance of the socialization process to the process of social change.

Core Readings

Steckley, John and Clark, Arthur (2007). Chapter Four: Socialization.


In this chapter we get “sociologically serious” and get right down into the heart of society (and sociology for that matter) and take a look at socialization and the socialization process.

And what is the socialization process?

Well, the text authors define socialization as “a learning process, one that involves development or changes in the individual’s sense of self.” For a dry and relatively non-threatening textbook definition, this is fine as far as it goes. Unfortunately, the definition really doesn’t capture the full important and significance of socialization, nor does it sweep across a broad enough canvas. Yes socialization is about an individual’s “sense of self,” but it’s really much more than that. In fact, in the study of sociology, the process of socialization is really a big deal and any definition of it should capture the significance.  Given the importance of and significance of socialization, I believe we can better define socialization in the following way:

Socialization is the process by which the social order[1] is involuntarily and (if necessary) coercively transferred onto a clean and shiny newborn baby body and mind.

Now if you think about it, that’s big and it takes the definition of socialization way beyond the notion of your own sense of self and makes it something that is much more defining of who you are. In this context, socialization becomes the process of moulding and forming you into a shape suitable and acceptable to society. We might say that for a sociologist like me, socialization is the manufacturing process and you are the well oiled car engine or the mass produced manikin, well designed, appropriately manicured product—a human being—fitted into a human society.

Now being that this may be your first class in sociology, you may have a hard time accepting the idea that you are shaped and moulded by a process of socialization in the same way a product is shaped and moulded. After all, you are taught from birth you are and individual personality with individual likes and dislikes and individual expressions in the world. There is, of course, a sense where we do express individual identity. However, our expression of individual identity is always done in the context of the rules and behaviours, mores and folkways that we learn as part of our socialization process. That is, who we are is conditioned by the social order within which we are raised. It will help us to understand what I am talking about if we illustrate the process with an example.

As the text says, the process of socialization starts at birth. Socialization is initiated when agents of socialization, like the doctors and the nurses and your parents, quickly divide the baby into the two broad “categories of human being, “male” and “female.” The groups are immediately distinguished from each other. One group, the group with the vagina, is given a pink blanket while the other group, the group with the penis,  is given a blue blanket. Following the initial segregation (which continues on throughout the lifespan of the individual), the “boy” and the “girl” group are treated differently. Boys are trained to be “breadwinners,” while girls are primed for their reproductive roles. As documented over and over and again by sociologists, each group has a markedly different life path and although in recent decades there has been a “loosening” of the socialized gender roles (nowadays we see individuals stepping outside of their socialized roles, stay at home dads, moms in the workforce, etc.), nevertheless the majority of women still bear and are primarily responsible for raising children while the men spend their pre-retirement life time in productive labor. It’s interesting however that even when women go out into the workforce, they are often also expected to be the primary caregiver for the children as well working a “double day” in order to meet their obligations as mother over and above any financial obligations they may have.

The socialization process continues on in the home where parents become responsible for training the children in the ways of their gender and social class. Parents are, of course, a powerful force for socialization since not only do they generally talk to, treat, and even cuddle their children differently based on their gender, but they also begin the process of labor force socialization and, subsequently, reinforce the efforts of the school system as well. For example, working class children are taught the value of punctuality and industriousness as well as the routines of the labor force. Middle class individuals are taught the value of long hours and competitive excellence.[2] Upper class individuals are taught the value of authority and free thinking along with the continual ideological reinforcement of the messages of their genetic, moral, or spiritual superiority (we’ll see more about this in our required assignment section this week).

At approximately the age of five, children are moved out of the home into “schools” where teachers then begin the twelve step process of “educating” (read enforcing) the social order. Once again, the type of socialization you receive depends in large measure on your social class. Jean Anyon’s study in the Journal of Education is instructive[3] for the way he clearly documents differential socialization. Working class kids get trained one way, and elite kids get trained another with the training being primarily designed to fit them into the productive roles (factory worker, middle class manager, elite CEO) that their “birth place” leads them to.  Of course teachers do not go it alone. After a certain age, the children themselves begin to enforce the social order. around about the age of five or six, for example, children internalize and begin enforcing gender expectations by tittering, laughing, and sanctioning those individuals who step out of the narrow and prescriptive boxes of gender.

The whole process itself goes on for twelve or so years at which point the successful socialization of the individual is marked by a ritualised graduation ceremony where the newly minted “members of society” are passed out into the world where they will take on their productive (as in the case of men) or reproductive (as in the case of women) role.  Interestingly, by the time graduation occurs nothing is hidden. The school system, and even the students themselves, are self conscious about, and take pride in, the fact that they are graduating into the work force of society. Interestingly, at that point the values of the system are internalized and accepted to the point where the purpose of socialization no longer needs to be obscured.

And of course, the socialization process doesn’t stop at graduation. When you graduate school, the socialization process is taken over by the media and other “organizations of socialization” like the Freemason or the Shriners or the local chapter of the Better Business Bureau or the Trade Union or whatever. All these organizations are particularly powerful agents of socialization which work very hard to impose and reinforce specific world views and specific patterns of behaviour and thought on the adult population. The media is a great example. As communications specialists (i.e., sociologists who study mass media) would tell us, the media is a powerful agent of socialization. Often when we talk about media influence we use the example of television games and violence, but for sociologists it goes much deeper than this. As much as, perhaps more than, parents and schools, the media are implicated in the construction of worldviews. The behaviour of US media around the last Iraq war is fascinating in this regard (see additional reading section).

Anyway, the point here is not to go into the details of the socialization process. The point here is to emphasize that the process of socialization is what guarantees the replication of the social order from generation to generation. As each new baby enters society, that baby is taught, by the agents of socialization, how to think, act, and behave in accordance with the expectations of society.”As noted above, within our current system, these expectations often revolve around how individuals will “fit” into the productive apparatus of society.

Now you may object to the definition of socialization as involuntary, and you may balk at the strong statements of imposition of values that support the productive systems of society, but in fact, at least until your teenage years, socialization is involuntary, generally non-negotiable, and powerfully imposed. Nobody asks you if you want to be a “boy” or a “girl,” or if you want to go to school or if you want to learn math or reading or writing, or whether or not you want to slave away for forty years in a factory, or bear children, or whatever. It is merely expected of you and you are punished and sanctioned if you do not comply. They make you be a boy and make you be a girl. They make you go to school and learn what the government thinks you should learn,[4] and you simply cannot choose not to learn. If you try, socialization is enforced. Parents who keep their kids out of school will have to demonstrate they are still teaching school curriculum else truancy laws come into effect, a boy that does not conform to gender expectations will be ridiculed and taunted, and anybody that steps outside the social expectations will become the victim of ascending social sanctions (i.e., the social sanctions will get worse the longer the violations occur, or the more serious they are). This is just the way it is.

Now is the forced imposition of role, identity and culture good, or bad? Well, it depends on your perspective I suppose. Sigmund Freud, whose entire psychology is based on the premise that society engages in a sophisticated repression of primitive and aggressive sexual and instinctual energies would say yes it is good. He would say that if you didn’t repress the instincts, if you didn’t channel the primitive and instinctual energies into socially acceptable outlets, all hell and chaos would break loose.[5] His is a common perception based on some notion of Darwinian ascent from savagery and the basic irrationality of the human species. That is, Freud assumes we (and by we I mean human beings) are primitive, sexual lunatics. Without repression and the controlling factor of socialization, according to Freud, our primitive instincts would boil to the surface leading us into anarchy and chaos. In this way Freud justifies repressive socialization.

Of course, many people wouldn’t think about socialization in these terms, or wouldn’t go so far as to justify repressive socialization by reference to questionable theories of instinctual madness. Freud had a peculiarly negative view of human nature and many wouldn’t go so far as Freud, preferring a more moderate stance. Still, most people, except maybe the Anarchists[6] out there (and interestingly even they would have to socialize their children) would come down in favour of some form of socialization process. The reproduction of culture, the passing on of knowledge, even survival depends on the generation-to-generation reproduction of society.  Socialization is what makes the social order go around. Babies are born into this world totally helpless and if we didn’t pass on culture to them, they’d die and eventually society would wink out of existence. So even putting aside Freud’s questionable assumptions of human nature, we still need a socialization process. If we didn’t socialize and train our children, if we didn’t pass on knowledge and wisdom of older generation, we’d have to rebuild everything anew every generation and if you had to do that, only the simplest of social and physical orders would be possible. So there is definitely an argument to be made in favour of the socialization process. The socialization is quite literally the core process that enables us, as humans, to create a society over and above what Mother Nature has provided.

Nevertheless, despite the fact that we need a socialization process, we must not forget the fact that the social order does not exist sui generis, that it emerges out of the actions of individuals, that it is imposed, that we are not given a choice, and that there may be other ways of doings things outside of what is commonly accepted as normal social practice. In other words, we do have a right to question the social order and we do have a right to question societys expectations and it would seem that more and more people are doing that. Ever since the sixties blew open the riged and box like impositions of the social order, each generation has questioned and whittled a way at barriers until the society we live in now is, when compared to the brutally repressed Viennese society which Freud made a scientific study of, nowhere near as rigid and authoritarian as it once was. But that is North American culture. Even though we do enjoy more ability to question cultural programming and the imposition of the social order, not all countries share in this limited freedom. And there are still restrictions. Witness the ongoing resistance to gay marriage and the moral and legal force with which violations of socially expected reproductive roles are sanctioned.

So to summarize, socialization is the process by which the social order is involuntarily and (if necessary) coercively transferred onto a clean and shiny newborn baby body and mind. It is the process by which the rules and expectations, the identities and behaviours seen as acceptable to society, are transferred from generation to generation. In the creation of society it is a necessary process, though we also have to remember it is not a given and we can change it (though it does require significant effort).

In the final analysis, and as pointed out in section one of this course, it’s your actions that create and re-create society. The socialization process is a perfect example of this because it is in the actions of the agents of socialization (parents, the media, our schools, our peer groups, even ourselves) that the social world is re-created from generation to generation. As we can see, the process of socialization is the core process by which society is re-created and if we wish to change society and ourselves, then one of the first places we start is with the socialization process itself.

Additional Reading

Pentagon, media agree on Iraq war censorship http://www.wsws.org/articles/2003/mar2003/med-m05.shtml

Media Coverage of Iraq


This week’s assignment is a required assignment. You must hand this assignment in to receive credit.

In this section we looked at the socialization process with specific reference to gender and the system of production of our society. I suggested that socialization is, among other things, the process whereby society imposes “the system” on fresh individuals. Within this socialization process, girls are primarily socialized to take on the role that reproduce the labor force while boys are socialized to become breadwinners (i.e., laborers, managers, executives, etc.) in the productive apparatus of society. This may sound outrageous to some but nowhere is this made more clear than studies on what sociologists and educational specialists call the hidden curriculum

Read the following article, Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work, JEAN ANYON
(From: Journal of Education, Vol. 162, no. 1, Fall 1980. See http://www-scf.usc.edu/~clarkjen/Jean%20Anyon.htm) and note how different schools, which cater to different social classes, socialize different type of behaviours in their students. Notice, for example, how upper crust schools emphasize free thinking and train students to disagree and discuss. Notice how lower class schools emphasize routine and conformity and rule following.

Now, take a look at your own education and the schools you went to and identify the social class of your primary and secondary school. Was it working class, middle class, or upper class. Provide examples of the types of skills, values, and behaviours that were imposed upon you  as a result of your socialization process and that therefore become part of your identity.

Study Questions

Distinguish between primary and secondary socialization. 

What is ‘determinism’? How does it compare with what sociology believes?

Briefly explain Thorndike’s ‘Law of Effect’. What are the two component parts of this theory?

Demonstrate an understanding of Freud’s concepts of the id, the ego, and the superego.

Briefly discuss Mead’s three stages of social development.

In your own words, describe the three different aspects of Cooley’s ‘looking-glass self’.

How might Gilligan’s analysis of self-image apply to the development of eating disorders in young women?

What is the ‘culture and personality’ school of thought?

What are the positive and negative aspects of peer socialization?

Why might teens be particularly susceptible to the influence of peer pressure?

Why is the mass media generally viewed as being a negative source of socialization?

How can education be a negative source of socialization?

Distinguish between the notions of narrow and broad-based socialization.

What is re-socialization?  Provide at least two examples as to where it might occur in Canadian society.

What is a total institution? Why do they often use degradation ceremonies?

[1] I The social order is the sum total of all the things that humans have created for themselves over and above what is provided by nature. In this sense, the social order encompasses everything that is human, past and present. This would include things like our Material Culture (i.e., our clothing, our housing, the props for our leisure activity, etc.) our Ideal Culture (our stories and traditions, our educational system, and such) and our Institutions including our philosophical, religious, and scientific belief systems.

It is important to note that the social order is not a random manifestation of human activity. Humans think, plan, and create and their intentions (sometimes unconscious, sometimes conscious) manifest themselves in the social order around them. The social order is thus the result of the (more or less) coordinated activities of human beings. Of course, Power is a salient favor in the manifestation of the social order. People with more power and resources have more influence on the manifestation of reality and the social order than those who do not. A black South African living in a shack outside Johannesburg have limited ability to influence the social order of his country and is thus a victim of the social order already in place.

[2] For example, in the middle class area where I live, parents place much emphasis on training their kids to work from morning until night. They put them in multiple activities throughout the week, encourage constant study, and expose them to activities which reward competition and success while punishing those who are lazy and lose.

[3] See http://www-scf.usc.edu/~clarkjen/Jean%20Anyon.htm

[4] As you may or may not be aware, educational is a governmental concern and curriculum is set and enforced at the level of government.

[5] Sigmund Freud Civilization and it’s Discontents.

[6] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anarchism

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