Symbolic Interactionists see socialisation as an active process in which social interaction between children with adults and other children play a crucial role.
Gerald Handel drew on the work of George Herbert Mead to develop a symbolic interactionist perspective on socialisation and the development of the self, and he is the main theorist considered below.
Social Interaction and biological development
Social interaction is a crucial part of the biological development of the child.
The common sense view of child development is that biology comes first and once the child has the physical and brain capacities to walk and talk, then they walk and talk, but for Handel biological development and social interaction work and develop together.
A newborn child is unable to co-operate with others and take part in society because they are physically undeveloped and are unsocialised.
As the child gets older they mature physically and become socialised, both of which gradually allow them to function as a member of society.
A young child is dependent on its carers for its survival, but even this requires interaction between the child and the caregivers (crying is a basic form of communication), and social interaction is a vital part of a child’s intellectual and emotional development.
Intellectual capacities are developed through a child interacting with others in the same way in which muscles are developed through their physical usage.
Take the development of language for example: social interaction is absolutely essential for a child to develop the capacity to think in words and to speak and communicate. Without social interaction, language remains undeveloped as does the part of the brain which processes language.
Empathy, Communication and the Self
The process of socialisation allows the child to develop three key capacities:
- The development of a self-concept. Following Mead, the development one’s self-concept is inherently social. It involves considering how other people see my own actions, and through this process the child learns to self-regulate by avoiding actions others don’t approve of and vice-versa for approved-of actions. In this way, by reflecting on the ‘looking glass self’ the individual comes to develop a sense of their own self as distinct from others.
- The ability to empathise. Developing empathy is an integral part of developing a self-concept since it involves putting yourself in the shoes of others and considering how one’s actions make other people. Through doing this the child learns empathy.
- The ability to communicate. Socialisation is inherently communicative, from the very early stages of non-verbal communication to the later development of language with its more complex grammatical forms and nuances of meaning.
So for Handel the process of socialisation simultaneously involves the individual developing a unique sense of self, but also a sense of their social self, and through socialisation they learn to regulate their behaviour so that they take account of the reactions of others, rather than just individuals doing whatever they want all the time.
Agencies of socialisation and peer groups
In order to fully understand the process of how a child is socialised we need to take a close, in-depth look at the perspectives of both the adult agents of socialisation such as parents and teachers and child’s peer group, or the other children they are socialised with.
Agents of socialisation
From an interactionist perspective adult agents of socialisation have a lot of freedom to socialise their children in different ways. There are many different styles of parenting practice for example, and most parents are, for the most part, left alone with their children for MOST of the time to socialise them as they see fit. Thus we should not expect all children in a society to be socialised in the same way.
Granted, there are laws and guidelines outlining how parents and teachers should interact with children, but these set very broad limits and the State rarely intervenes in any major ways in the socialisation of most children, and within the broad limits set there is a lot of room for variations in socialisation depending on the parents and teachers educational background, religion, politics, ethnicity, or just their personalities.
Children play a more active role in their own social interaction with other children compared to adults, and the opinions of other children are often perceived as important by children themselves.
Thus socialisation within the peer, or reference group is an important aspect of the child’s development.
Socialisation within the peer group operates differently to socialisation with adult agents.
- Children take part in making up the rules of engagement rather than just being expected to follow rules laid down by adults.
- Peer groups tend to seek more immediate gratification while adults try to stress deferred gratification.
- Peer groups provide an alternative to adult standards of normative behaviour, which may come into conflict with those standards!
Peer groups are not just important for child socialisation, they also play a role in adult socialisation and adults go through changes, such as taking on a new job, for example.
Socialisation and conflicting norms
Handel sees conflict over appropriate norms of behaviour as a normal part of socialisation.
There will be conflict over what the child wants, possibly reinforced by the peer group (‘more cake now’) and what the parents expect, for example.
There will also likely be conflict when children and adults who have different histories of socialisation come into contact in certain social contexts, because of the wide variety of social norms in a society.
However there is also a sense of ‘societal demand’ – society as a whole has broad norms which nearly everyone understands they need to abide by and so for the most part we can settle our differences peacefully.
This is a more nuanced and complex theory of socialisation than that offered by Functionlists and Marxists which recognises that children play an active role in their own socialisation and are not just passive sponges.
Handel’s account is both too general (not in-depth enough) and takes too little account of structural features of society such as social class.
This material is mainly relevant to the Culture and Identity option, which is sometimes taught within first year A-level Sociology.
Sources/ find our more
Gerald Handel (Wikipedia entry)
Part of this post was adapted from Haralambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives 8th Edition.
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