A Basic Definition:
The social processes through which new members of society develop awareness of social norms and values and help them achieve a distinct sense of self. It is the process which transforms a helpless infant into a self-aware, knowledgeable person who is skilled in the ways of a society’s culture.
Socialization is normally discussed in terms of primary socialization, which is particularly intense and takes place in the early years o life, and secondary socialization, which continues throughout the life course.
Stages of Socialization
Socialization takes place through various agencies, such as the family, peer groups, schools and the media.
The family is the main agent during primary socialization, but increasingly children attend some kind of nursery schooling from a very young age. It is in the family that children learn the ‘basic norms’ of social interaction – in Britain such norms include learning how to walk, speak, dress in clothes, and a whole range of ‘social manners’, which a taught through the process of positive and negative sanctions, or rewarding good and punishing bad behaviour.
In modern societies, class gender and ethnic differences start to affect the child from a very young age and these influence patterns of socialization. Where gender is concerned, for example, children unconsciously pick up on a range of gendered stereotypes which inform the actions of their parents, and they typically adjust their behaviour accordingly.
In adulthood, socialization continues as people learn how to behave in relation to new areas of social life, such as work environments and political beliefs. Mass media and the internet are also seen as playing an increasing role in socialization, helping to shape opinions, attitudes and behaviour. This is especially the case with the advent of new media, which enable virtual interactions via chatrooms, blogs and so on.
Taken together, agencies of socialization form a complex range of contrary social influences and opportunities for interaction and it can never be an entirely directed or determined process: humans are self-aware beings capable of forming their own interpretations of the messages with which they are presented.
Criticisms of the Concept
The main criticism of theories of socialization is that they tend to exaggerate its influence. This is particularly true of functionalism which tended to see individuals as cultural dopes, at the mercy of socializing agencies.
Dennis Wrong (1961) took issue with what he saw as the ‘oversocialized concept of man’ in sociology, arguing that it treats people as mere role-players, simply following scripts.
Today, theories of society and cultural reproduction are much more likely to recognize that individuals are active players and that socialization is a conflict-ridden and emotionally charged affair, and the results of it are much less predictable than functionalist theories suggested in the 1950s.