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“Becoming a Member of Society Through Socialization”

From Caroline Hodges Persell. 1990. Chapter 5, pp. 98-107 in Understanding Society: An Introduction to Sociology. 3rd ed. New York, NY: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.


A girl named Genie was found in the United States in 1970. Genie's father had kept her locked in a room from the age of 20 months until age 13. Genie was harnessed naked to an infant's potty seat and left alone for hours and days through the years. When she was remembered at night, she was put to bed in a homemade straitjacket. There were no radios or televisions in the house, people spoke in hushed tones, and the only language Genie heard was an occasional obscenity from her father. He hated noise, and if Genie made any sound her father would growl at her like a dog or beat her with a stick. As a result of her confinement, Genie could not walk and her eyes could not focus beyond the boundaries of her room. She was malnourished, incontinent, and salivated constantly [Curtiss, 1977].
Despite all this, when the psychologist Susan Curtiss first met her, Genie was alert, curious, and intensely eager for human contact. When frightened or frustrated she would erupt into silent frenzies of rage--flailing about, scratching, spitting, throwing objects, but never uttering a sound. Aside from not speaking, her lack of socialization was apparent in her behavior: She would urinate in unacceptable places, go up to someone in a store and take whatever she liked of theirs, and peer intently into the faces of strangers at close range. Although Curtiss worked with her for several years, Genie never developed language abilities beyond those of a 4-year-old, and she ended up being placed in an institution.
The story of Genie shows the importance of socialization in human society. Socialization refers to preparing newcomers to become members of an existing group and to think, feel, and act in ways the group considers appropriate. Viewed from the group's point of view, it is a process of member replacement. Such widely diverse situations as child rearing, teaching someone a new game, orienting a new member of an organization, preparing someone who has been in sales work to become a manager, or acquainting an immigrant with the life and culture of a new society are all instances of socialization.
Socialization is a central process in social life. Its importance has been noted by sociologists for a long time, but their image of it has shifted over the last hundred years.  In the early years of American sociology, socialization was equated with civilization. The issue was one of taming fierce individualists so they would willingly cooperate with others on common endeavors. An unruly human nature was assumed to exist prior to an individual's encounter with society. This nature had to be shaped to conform to socially acceptable ways of behaving.
As time went on, however, socialization came to be seen more and more as the end result-- that is, as internalization. Internalization means taking social norms, roles, and values into one's own mind. Society was seen as the primary factor responsible for how individuals learned to think and behave. This view is evident in the work of functionalist Talcott Parsons, who gave no hint that the result of socialization might be uncertain or might vary from person to person. If people failed to play their expected roles or behaved strangely, functionalists explained this in terms of incomplete or inadequate socialization. Such people were said to be "unsocialized"--they had not yet learned what was expected of them. The trouble is, they might very well know what was expected but simply be rejecting it. Someone who runs a red light, for example, knows perfectly well that one is not supposed to do that but is doing it anyway. The possibility that individuals might have needs, desires, values, or behaviors different from those that society expects (or demands) of them was not seriously considered by functionalists .
As Parsons used the term "internalization," it referred to the tendency for individuals to accept particular values and norms and to conform to them in their conduct. Dennis Wrong (1961) deplored this view of internalization as being an "oversocialized" conception of human beings. It left no room for the "animal" or biological side of human existence, where motivational drives might conflict with the discipline of internalized social norms. Functionalists deny the presence in humans "of motivational forces bucking against the hold that social discipline has over them" (Wrong, 1961, p. 187). Individual drives do sometimes conflict with social expectations, however. For example, a common theme in movies and TV is that of married people becoming involved in sexual relationships with persons other than their spouses. They know they are not supposed to have an affair, but they do so anyway.
Undoubtedly as a reaction to the overly determined Parsonian view of socialization, a group of interpretive sociologists has reasserted the independence of individuals . They reject Parsons's view of socialization as internalized values, norms, and habits, and they reject the notion of society as something out there (a given) that affects individuals the way Parsons suggested it did. The interpretive perspective sees socialization as an interactive process. Individuals negotiate their definitions of the situation with others. A couple, for example, may negotiate between themselves a conception of marriage that is sharply different from the view of marriage held by people in the larger society. The interpretive view offers an "undersocialized" view of human behavior, since it tends to minimize the importance of historical social structures and the deep internalization of social values and norms (Wentworth, 1980). But the innovative couple may find that their personally developed conception of marriage is challenged or undermined by friends, in-laws, legal systems, employers, or others.
Both the functionalist and the interpretive views of socialization are incomplete. Each is relevant for understanding some features, but both tend to ignore other important aspects of social life. It is useful to combine the helpful points of each approach into a more complete view of socialization. Wentworth (1980) proposes exactly such a synthesis. He suggests that an adequate view of socialization must leave room for free will and human autonomy, though noting the patterned social structures and processes that influence individuals. Wentworth's combined view clarifies the socialization that occurs in families, schools, groups, sports teams, organizations, and societies.
We can distinguish three major aspects of socialization:
1. The context in which it occurs
2. The actual content and processes people use to socialize others
3. The results arising from those contexts and processes
The context is like the theater or stage in which socialization occurs. Social context includes culture, language, and social structures such as the class, ethnic, and gender hierarchies of a society. Context also includes social and historical events, power and control in social life, and the people and institutions with whom individuals come in contact in the course of their socialization.
The content and process of socialization is like the play, the lines, and the actors. It includes the structure of the socializing activity--how intense and prolonged it is, who does it, how it is done, whether it is a total experience or only a partial process, how aware the individual is of alternatives, and how attractive those alternatives are. Content refers specifically to what is passed from member to novice. Processes are those interactions that convey to new members how they are to speak, behave, think, and even feel. The view of socialization as an interactive process stands in contrast to the deterministic views of how socialization occurs. Old and new members interact, and in the process exercise mutual influence on each other.
Outcomes may properly be defined as what happens later, after someone has been exposed to particular content and processes. New members may learn the behaviors, attitudes, and values that old members hoped they would learn. What do these include? First and foremost among humans is learning how to speak and to apply the rules of language to creating new sentences. Like learning to play chess, learning a language involves being shown some of the ways vocabulary and grammar can be combined (like learning how the various pieces can be moved in a chess game), and then creating one's own combinations from those possibilities. Closely related to learning to use a language is gaining a sense of the rules underlying a society's culture. Even learning to walk in an upright position appears to be the result of socialization.
Socialization occurs within biological, psychological, and social contexts. Each of these offers possibilities and limitations that may influence socialization.
The Biological Context
Biological features are regularly suggested as sources of human behavior. Sociobiologists (see Chapter 3) suggest that some human capacities may be "wired into" our biological makeup. For example, even newborn babies seem to strive for maximum social interaction. They move their heads back and forth in burrowing or "rooting" motions looking for milk; they have powerful, grasping fingers that cling tightly to other human fingers or bodies; and they move so as to maximize body contact with their caregivers. These facts suggest that infants are born wanting human contact.
Sociobiologists argue that traits which aid survival and reproduction (like learning not to eat things that induce vomiting) will survive, whereas others (like unusual whiteness in certain animals, which makes them easier prey) will tend to die out. Although this evidence suggests that biological factors clearly play a role in development, it does not show that all human behavior is biologically determined. Biology sets the stage, on which a very broad range of human behavior occurs. Most or all of the important differences between societies are due to social rather than biological factors.
As educators have become more aware of children with "learning disabilities," they have begun to wonder if some conditions, such as those labeled "dyslexia" (that is, the inability to grasp the meaning of something one reads) are due to the incomplete development of certain nerve pathways in the brain that may scramble signals on the way to the brain, making it likely that children will "see" bs instead of ds, qs rather than ps, and so forth. Such problems may be part of the biological context of socialization. They may interact in significant ways with psychological and social factors during socialization and have important effects on the outcomes-- for example, if children are labeled retarded or develop a sense of worthlessness, they may be less likely to learn.
In short, biology provides rich potential for becoming human and may present general tendencies, such as the tendency to seek out social interaction or to use language, but it does not determine the particular form such social development takes.
The Psychological Context
Emotional States and the Unconscious
The primary factor in the psychological context of socialization is the psychological state of the person being socialized. Psychological states include feelings such as fear, anger, grief, love, and happiness or a sense of emotional deprivation. Strongly feeling one or more of these emotions might very well inhibit or promote socialization of a particular kind. Fear may make it difficult for young children to be socialized in school, whereas people in love may leant very quickly what makes their loved ones happy. Emotions can also influence how individuals perceive the content of socialization, whether in becoming a member of a family group or a religious sect. Knowing something about the feelings of the people involved (the psychological context) helps explain the results of the socialization process.
Cognitive Development Theories
A number of psychologists emphasize the series of stages through which humans progress. Although emotional concerns can be involved, these theorists focus on cognitive (intellectual) development, which occurs in a systematic, universal sequence through a series of stages. The most influential theorist of intellectual development was the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget. A sharp observer of children's development, Piaget stressed that children need to master the skills and operations of one stage of intellectual development before they are able to learn something at the next stage.
Whether or not they all agree on the unfolding of specific stages, cognitive development theorists see children as increasingly trying to make sense of their social worlds as they grow up. Children try to see patterns in the way things happen.
Social contexts influence individual development. Culture exists before the socialization of new members begins. Parents, for example, do not need to decide alone what they arc going to teach their children, since much of what they will pass along they have themselves learned through socialization. Besides culture, individuals are affected by social and historical events and by a number of individuals who actively try to socialize them.
Social and Historical Events
Major social and historical events can be a force in socializing an entire generation. Such major events as the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Holocaust in Europe during World War II, or the civil rights movement that took shape in the United States in the 1960s have profound implications for individual socialization. Elder (1974) compared children whose families were very poor during the 1930s with others whose families were more comfortable. Those suffering greater deprivation depended less on formal education for their life achievements and more on effort and accomplishment outside of education. Their health as adults tended to be affected negatively by their economic hardships. Finally, they tended to value marriage and family more highly as a result of their economic deprivation (Elder, 1974). Thus individuals who live in extraordinary times appear to be influenced by the historical events around them.
Participants in Socialization
Obviously, parents and the immediate family of infants are important to their early care and development. Major changes in the family are increasing the importance of other caregivers as well. Teachers and schools transmit formal skills, knowledge, and social values. As infants mature, they have more and more contact with other children their age, called peers. Inevitably, children are affected by the community and nation in which they are reared. Children in the United States today spend a great deal of time with the mass media. Radio, movies, and-- most significantly--television have transformed the way we experience the world and what we know about it.
THE FAMILY. In rural societies, children have most of their early social contact with the family. Today, however, the family's importance in the child's life is changing. The American family no longer necessarily conforms to the stereotypical nuclear family with two parents and two or more dependent children. Fewer than one family in five consists of a working father, full-time homemaker mother, and at least one child. There are more and more single-parent families, and 56 percent of all mothers with children under 6 years old are working (U. S. Bureau of the Census, 1985a, p. 399). More and more children are receiving their early and primary care from others in addition to their parents. What are the effects on young children of having only one parent in the home? Of having a mother who works outside the home? One study suggests that single parents with adequate financial and emotional support are able to raise their children quite effectively (Monaghan-Leckband, 1978).
Although most children growing up in America today will spend a great deal of time with people other than members of their families, this does not mean that the participation of families in socialization has ended.
On the contrary, the family continues to be a major means of passing on values, attitudes, and behaviors. As we saw in Chapter 1, in the case of Alex and Alice as compared to Albert and his wife, family origin does a great deal to shape a child's social opportunities, resources, and experience. Different social positions may be related to different socialization for children even when they live in the same society.
DAY CARE. Nearly 10 million children 5 years old or younger have mothers who work away from home. This includes 48 percent of the mothers of children 3 years old or younger. For these children, day care is an important agent of socialization. In 1982 there were more than 30,000 day-care centers, ranging from informal arrangements at the home of a neighbor to large nurseries run by schools, churches, charities, corporations, and occasionally employers (Lindsey, 1984). Figure 5.1 shows the primary childcare arrangements for children under age 5 whose mothers work outside the home.
When the ratio of staff to children is at least one to ten or lower, when the groups of children are not larger than 20, and when caregivers are trained in early childhood development and are attentive to the children, the children who attend day care do very well (Collins, 1984; Lindsey, 1984). Children from very low income families have benefited considerably over the long term as a result of federally financed Head Start and other early day-care programs (Deutsch et al., 1985; Schweinhart and Weikart, 1987).
SCHOOLS. As societies become more complex and there is a greater division of labor, family members cannot spend all day every day teaching children what they need to know to function effectively as adults in society. Therefore, most societies have established schools to teach youngsters certain skills. Schools teach values and attitudes as well. These values and attitudes include, for example, competitiveness or cooperation, conformity or innovation.
Schools try to impress upon children the importance of working for rewards, and they try to teach neatness, punctuality, orderliness, and respect for authority. Teachers are called upon to evaluate how well children perform a particular task or how much skill they have. Thus, in school, children's relationships with adults move from nurture and behavioral concerns to performance of tasks and skills determined by others.
PEERS. A peer group consists of friends and associates who are about the same age and social status. As children get older, going to school brings them into regular contact with other children of their age. As early as first or second grade, children form social groups. In these early peer groups, children learn to share toys and other scarce resources (such as the teacher's attention). Peers may reinforce behaviors that are stressed by parents and schools--for example, whether it is all right to hit someone else and what arc acceptable behaviors for boys and girls. As children move through school, the interests of peer groups may diverge more and more from those of adults. This is particularly true of the United States but seems also to be the case in certain socialist societies today. Youthful concerns may center on popular music and movies, sports, sex, or illegal activities. Parents and teachers, on the other hand, want children to do schoolwork, help at home, and "stay out of trouble." Peer groups may provide social rewards--praise, prestige, and attention--to individuals for doing things adults disapprove of.
In the former Soviet Union, the peer group was used by authorities to reinforce the behaviors and attitudes they desire. For example, if a child camesto school late, it was not only the teacher who noted this (perhaps by praising children who are on time) but also those in the child's row in the classroom, who might be enlisted to urge the child to come to school on time (Bronfenbrenner, 1970). Peer sanctions (punishments) are particularly effective. In Israel, for instance, in a collective farm group, a child who breaks a rule such as using a tractor when it is not allowed and damaging the machine in the process may be formally ostracized for some time. During this period the other children will not speak to or play with the child. Although effective in achieving social goals, the united effect of peer and official authority is more powerful and painful than official authority alone for the individual who does not conform. In our society, adolescents are heavily influenced by their peers when it comes to dress, musical fads, cheating, and drug use. In making their future life plans, however, they are influenced more by their parents than by their peers (Davies and Kandel, 1981; Kandel and Lesser, 1972; Krosnick and Judd, 1982; Williams, 1972). Girls seem to be somewhat more influenced in their future life plans by peers than are boys (Bush, 1985; Davies and Kandel, 1981; Simmons et al., 1979).
COMMUNITY AND COUNTRY. Every society tries to influence how young people grow up. Much of this influence is expressed through parents, schools, and peers, but it is worth considering for a moment how children become exposed to the political and economic ideas that are considered important for citizens of a particular country.
Children learn political information and attitudes rapidly during the elementary school years, particularly between fourth and fifth grades (Hess and Torney, 1967). One of the first things they learn is that they belong to some kind of a political unit. Even very young children develop a sense of "we" in relation to their own country and learn to see other countries in terms of"they." Children also tend to believe that their own country and language are superior to others. This bond may be the most critical socialization feature relating to the political life of the nation (Hess and Torney, 1967). The family helps provide this basic loyalty to country, but the school also shapes the political concepts that expand and develop children's early feelings of attachment. Political orientations develop early and reach nearly adult levels by the end of elementary school, but there are still some critical changes that occur at other points during the life cycle. High school students become more aware of differences between political parties and tend to become more active politically. In the first decade of adult life people modify their political orientations as they take on new occupational and family roles (Jennings and Niemi, 1968).
Children form economic ideas fairly early in life. One study examined how youngsters are socialized into capitalism. When third-graders were compared with twelfth-graders, the older students were found to hold more negative attitudes toward labor unions and more favorable attitudes toward business than did the younger children (Cummings and Taebel, 1978), suggesting that, over time, they developed attitudes that were more favorable toward capitalism, perhaps because of what they learned at school, from the media, or at home.
MASS MEDIA. The mass media include many forms of communication--such as books, magazines, radio, television, and movies--that reach large numbers of people without personal contact between senders and receivers. In the last few decades, children have been dramatically socialized by one source in particular: television. Studies have found that children spend more time watching TV than they spend in school.
It seems unbelievable that in 1945 the pollster George Gallup asked Americans, "Do you know what television is?" Now virtually every American home has at least one television set, and the average set is on almost 7 hours a day (Comstock et al., 1978). How has this transformation affected children? Reports vary, but children in the fifth to eighth grades view an average of 4 to 6 hours daily (B. S. Greenberg and Dervin, 1970; Lyle and Hoffman, 1972). Most of the research on the effects of television has been on the cognitive and behavioral results of TV watching. The topic most often studied has been the influence of television on antisocial behavior, especially violence. Current research supports the view that seeing violence on television increases the chance that a child will be aggressive (Comstock et al., 1978). No publicly available studies unambiguously relate changes in behavior (such as food habits or drug use) to exposure to television advertising (Comstock et al., 1978) .
Research also suggests that young people obtain considerable political and social information from television, but that how they perceive the information depends largely on parental influence (Comstock et al., 1978). For example, during the Vietnam War, television was the most important source of public information about the war. Yet how young people felt about it-- whether they favored or opposed it--seemed to be influenced more by their parents than by the opinions presented on television. Those who opposed the war interpreted the news on TV as opposing the war, whereas those favoring it saw the news as favoring it (Comstock et al., 1978).
Most researchers studying the effects of television on children have focused on the content of the programs and not on the total experience of television watching. They argue that there is too much violence and sex on children's programs and that more good educational programs for children are needed.
Winn (1977) suggests that the experience of watching television itself is limiting. When people watch television, no matter what the program, they are simply watchers and are not having any other experience. According to Winn, and many agree, children need to develop family relationships, the capacity for self direction, and the basic skills of communication (reading, writing, and speaking); to discover their own strengths and limitations, and to learn the rules that keep social interaction alive. Television works against all these goals by putting children in a passive situation where they do not speak, interact, experiment, explore, or do anything else active because they are watching a small moving picture on a machine. This research shows the growing importance of television as a medium of socialization, although clearly it is only one among a number of important influences.
Social Position as Part of the Context
Your family's social class, economic position, and ethnic background--as well as your gender--can affect the ways in which you will be socialized. People in more advantageous positions, like Alice and Alex in Chapter 1, tend to develop higher self-evaluations. As a result, they feel justified in having more resources. Similarly, those in less desired positions tend to have lower self-evaluations and may feel that their lower status is deserved (Della Fave, 1980).
Sociologists ask if children in different social classes are socialized differently. For instance are middle-class children socialized differently from lower-class children? If so, why and how? Middle-class parents are slightly less likely to use physical punishment than are lower-class parents (Gecas, 1979). Middle-class parents appear to be more concerned about their children's intentions than with the negative consequences of their actions. Thus, if a child breaks a dish a middle-class parent will be concerned with whether he or she did it "on purpose" or whether it was an accident, and the reaction will vary accordingly. Lower-class parents tend to react in about the same way whatever the intention of the child (Kohn, 1969).
These differences in parental response may stem from the life situations of people in different classes. Different parental experiences in the occupational world color the view of what children need to learn (Kohn, 1969, 1976; Kohn and Schooler, 1983; Pearlin, 1971).
Parents who are closely supervised on the job (more often blue-collar workers) value conformity more than do less supervised parents (usually white-collar workers). Both blue- and white-collar parents increasingly prefer more autonomy in their children, at least in the Detroit area (Alwin, 1984).
Cross-cultural studies show that members of agrarian and herding societies (where food can be accumulated and stored) tend to emphasize compliance in their socialization practices. In societies where food cannot be stored (as in hunting, gathering, or fishing economies), members more often stress individual achievement and self-reliance (Barry, Child, and Bacon, 1959).
Political structure may also be related to socialization practices. Autocratic states tend to have more "severe" socialization, show clear power and deference relationships, and stress obedience (Stephens, 1963). The Soviet Union, for example, works harder to socialize children to conformity than does the United States (Bronfenbrenner, 1970) . By way of contrast, tribal societies that lack a centralized or autocratic political system allow children to be less obedient and less conforming (Stephens, 1963).
All these studies suggest that parents value different traits for their children, depending on the economic, political, and social situations they face. In general, when adults have more opportunities for self-determination, they value and try to develop greater self-reliance in their children (Ellis, Lee, and Petersen, 1978). All groups try to socialize their children as well as they can, but they stress different behaviors, depending on what they see as needed in their own situation. Just as different societies may see the need for different behaviors and skills in their children, subgroups within society may do the same thing. They try to prepare their children as well as possible for the positions they are likely to hold.

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