Socialisation is the process whereby an individual learns the norms and values of a culture.
Giddens and Sutton (2017) provide a lengthier definition:
For sociologists socialization is the process whereby the helpless human infant becomes a self-aware, knowledgeable person, skilled in the ways of the culture into which he or she was born. Socialization of the young allows for more general phenomenon of social reproduction – the process through which societies achieve structural continuity overtime.
Agencies of socialisation
Agencies of socialisation refer to groups, social contexts or institutions in which socialisation takes place. The main agencies of socialisation include:
- The family
- Friendship and peer groups
- School (education)
- Social Media circles
- The mass media
- Any voluntary groups or clubs people might be a part of
- Religion (for those who are religious!)
- The workplace
In post-industrial societies socialisation is a complex process involving hundreds of thousands (possibly millions) of micro-interactions on a day to day basis within the context wider power relations – such as school, work, social media, and economic and political ‘structures’.
Social interactions over the life course within all of these contexts help individuals learn the specific norms of each context and the more general norms which make up their broader culture.
Socialisation isn’t just a passive process in which individuals ‘soak up’ and passively accept already existing norms and values… individuals have the capacity to reflect on the culture presented to them and change the way other people think, feel and act and thus have the capacity to change culture through the socialisation process.
Of course different individuals have different levels of desire and ability to change the culture into which they are socialised. As a general rule children have less ability to enact change compared to adults, while adults with more money, status and visibility have more power to change cultures than others.
For the most part, individuals accept most of the basic norms into which they are socialised – such as language, dress codes in the broader sense (i.e. actually wearing some clothes), being generally polite to people, not being violent, and the concept of working for a living.
However it also true that many people will go through a rebellious phase at certain times of their lives – the most well known of these include toddlers having tantrums and teenagers rebelling, but for the most part most people end up accepting and abiding by most of our already existing norms and values.
There are a minority of individuals for whom the socialisation process is one of rejecting the culture with which they are presented, and for these people socialisation may not be a smooth process – if a child rejects school rules for example they are handed out punishments, maybe even excluded permanently; if someone rejects the social norm of ‘having to work for a living’ they may end up unemployed and living on the streets.
As a final word on this topic individuals who reject ‘mainstream culture’ often go on to form subcultures – of which there are many in postmodern society – everything from Gay Pride to prison gangs and from Goths to Furries can be regarded as forms of subculture – the existence of which offers people who don’t feel a connection with mainstream agencies (such as education or work) a chance to belong to something they actually identify with.
For further information on this you might like to explore the culture of identity further and the relevant posts under the Crime and Deviance section.
Sociologists typically distinguish between two broad phases of socialisation: Primary Socialisation and Secondary Socialisation.
Primary socialisation occurs in infancy and childhood and is the most intense phase of learning.
This first phases of socialisation primarily takes place within the family and it is when the child learns the most fundamental norms of their culture such as language, basic manners, and where they start to learn gender.
In the United Kingdom today most children spend most of their early childhoods (pre-school age) in their family domestic unit with their parents and siblings being the main influencers on their socialisation, but there is considerable variation in family structures today – most children are socialised in nuclear families, but a significant minority are socialised in single parent or reconstituted families.
There is also a lot of global variation – in many cultures around the world grandparents, uncles and aunts continue to play a significant role in the primary socialisation of children.
There is no clear moment when primary socialisation begins and secondary socialisation starts, but the three main agencies associated with the later are education, peer groups, the media, and work.
Education or school
In developed societies with well established education systems children spend at least 30 hours a week (during term time) at school from the age of five where their interactions are highly regulated by the school environment.
School may well be where children are introduced to formal collective rules for the first time – such as uniforms, timetables and codes of conducts.
Thus in terms of time spent during later childhood, school is certainly a main agency of secondary socialisation, especially once we factor in how the school day and week can be extended by journeys to and from school, after school clubs and homework.
Most children have friendship groups from a young age, typically children who live locally, children of their parent’s friends or siblings.
It is difficult to assess the important of friends in the socialisation process, but friendship is usually one of the most important aspects in the life of individuals and shouldn’t be underestimate – people increasingly report their friends as being ‘ their family’ for example.
When a child gets to school their peer group will typically extend massively such that a child has to start to learn to ‘get on’ with larger groups most of whom they won’t have intimate relationships with, essential to get on in larger societies.
Simply in terms of time spent online, the media increasingly becomes an important agency of secondary socialisation as children get older.
Historical sociological perspectives such as The Hypodermic Syringe Model saw the media as having a direct and largely negative influence on children – teaching them to be passive consumers in a capitalist society for example, and children were seen as passive receptors.
However, it is clear today that children are much more active users of a diverse array of mainstream and social media and there is much more interaction going on and a massive diversity of experience, such that it is incredibly difficult to make generalisations about the experience of socialisation via the media.
The workplace and other institutions
Secondary socialisation continues all through adult life – getting one’s first and then subsequent jobs will usually require an individual to not only learn the new formal requirements of the job role but also the more informal norms of the working culture.
Socialisation within Sociology
Socialisation is one the major concepts within sociology, and in my experience you will usually find the concept explored in three main areas:
- Firstly in the introductory sections of text books, it is fundamental!
- Secondly in social theory – conceptions have changed as social theory has ‘evolved’ from Functionalism through to Social Interactionism for example
- Thirdly in the ‘life course’ – which may have links to Child Development – Giddens and Sutton (2017) do it this way.
- Finally as part of Crime and Deviance – socialisation being a part of social control. Abercrombie (2005) does this.
This post was primarily written for A-level sociology students studying the Culture and Identity option within A-level Sociology.
You might also like my introductory post on culture, socialisation and social norms.
NB – I use the correct spelling of socialisation in the title of this post and anywhere I haven’t quoted sociologists who use the incorrect American spelling.
Interestingly I doubt very much that Giddens, being English, would spell ‘socialisation’ with a Z in the middle, it’s most likely that the editors have modified this to fit in with a global American audience.
(1) Giddens and Sutton (2017) Sociology, Polity Press.
(2) Abercrombie (2005) Sociology, Polity.