Chapter 5. Socialization

Young boy with suprhero muscle costume
Figure 5.1 Doing gender and role play are processes of childhood socialization, whereby children learn to become gendered members of society. (Photo courtesy of Roman Boldyrev/Flickr.) CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Learning Objectives

5.1. Theories of Self Development

  • Describe what is meant by the self as a “social structure.”
  • Compare different models of self-development.
  • Explain Mead’s four stages of child socialization.
  • Analyze the formation of a gender schema in the socialization of gender roles.

5.2. Why Socialization Matters

  • Analyze the importance of socialization for individuals and society.
  • Outline the nature versus nurture debate.
  • Analyze how conformity of behaviour in society can coincide with the existence of individual uniqueness.

5.3. Agents of Socialization

  • Learn the roles of families and peer groups in socialization.
  • Understand how people are socialized through formal institutions like schools and workplaces, and through exposure to mass media.

5.4. Socialization Across the Life Course

  • Explain how people are socialized into new roles at age-related transition points.
  • Describe when and how resocialization occurs.
  • Outline the features of total institutions.

Introduction to Socialization

Victor of Aveyron
Figure 5.2 Victor, the wild boy or “feral child” of Aveyron, France grew up alone in the woods until age 12. He was only able to learn rudimentary language and social skills. Victor was the subject of the Francois Truffault film L’Enfant Sauvage (1970). (Image courtesy of Unknown Author/ Wikimedia Commons.) Public Domain

In the summer of 2005, police detective Mark Holste followed an investigator from the Department of Children and Families to a home in Plant City, Florida. They were there to look into a statement from the neighbour concerning a shabby house on Old Sydney Road. A small girl was reported peering from one of its broken windows. This seemed odd because no one in the neighbourhood had seen a young child in or around the home, which had been inhabited for the past three years by a woman, her boyfriend, and two adult sons.

Who Was the Mysterious Girl in the Window?

Entering the house, Detective Holste and his team were shocked. It was the worst mess they had ever seen: infested with cockroaches, smeared with feces and urine from both people and pets, and filled with dilapidated furniture and ragged window coverings.

Detective Holste headed down a hallway and entered a small room. That is where he found a little girl with big, vacant eyes staring into the darkness. A newspaper report later described the detective’s first encounter with the child:

She lay on a torn, moldy mattress on the floor. She was curled on her side … her ribs and collarbone jutted out … her black hair was matted, crawling with lice. Insect bites, rashes and sores pocked her skin…. She was naked — except for a swollen diaper.… Her name, her mother said, was Danielle. She was almost seven years old. (DeGregory, 2008)

Detective Holste immediately carried Danielle out of the home. She was taken to a hospital for medical treatment and evaluation. Through extensive testing, doctors determined that, although she was severely malnourished, Danielle was able to see, hear, and vocalize normally. Still, she would not look anyone in the eyes, did not know how to chew or swallow solid food, did not cry, did not respond to stimuli that would typically cause pain, and did not know how to communicate either with words or simple gestures, such as nodding “yes” or “no.” Likewise, although tests showed she had no chronic diseases or genetic abnormalities, the only way she could stand was with someone holding onto her hands, and she “walked sideways on her toes, like a crab” (DeGregory, 2008).

What had happened to Danielle? Put simply: beyond the basic requirements for survival, she had been neglected. Based on their investigation, social workers concluded that she was left almost entirely alone in rooms like the one where she was found. Without regular interaction — the holding, hugging, talking, the explanations and demonstrations given to most young children — she had not learned to walk or eat, speak or interact, play, or even understand the world around her. From a sociological point of view, Danielle had not been socialized.

Socialization is the process through which people are taught to be proficient members of a society. It describes how people come to understand and internalize societal norms and expectations, accept society’s beliefs, and be aware of societal values. It also describes the way people come to be aware of themselves and to reflect on the suitability of their behaviour in their interactions with others.

Socialization occurs as people engage and disengage in a series of roles throughout life. Each social role, like the role of son or daughter, student, friend, employee, etc., is defined by the behaviour expected of a person who occupies a particular position. Roles are defined by social expectations and internalized social norms that define what people should do when they occupy a social role in society. People expect a father to act like a father and will often have very specific criteria for determining how a proper father acts.

Socialization is not the same as socializing (interacting with others, like family, friends, and coworkers); to be precise, it is a sociological process that occurs through socializing. As Danielle’s story illustrates, even the most basic human activities are learned through interactions with others. Even physical tasks like sitting, standing, and walking did not automatically develop for Danielle as she grew. Without socialization, Danielle had not learned about the material culture of her society (the tangible objects a culture uses). For example, she could not hold a spoon, bounce a ball, or use a chair for sitting. She also had not learned its nonmaterial culture, such as its beliefs, values, and norms. She had no understanding of the concept of family, did not know cultural expectations for using a bathroom for elimination, and had no sense of modesty. Most importantly, she had not learned to use the symbols that make up language — through which people learn about who they are, how they fit with other people, and the natural and social worlds in which they live.

In the following sections, the importance of the complex process of socialization and how it takes place through interaction with many individuals, groups, and social institutions will be examined. Socialization is not only critical to children as they develop, it is a lifelong process through which people become prepared for new social environments and expectations in every stage of their lives. Self development is the process of coming to recognize a stable sense of a “self” through socialization.

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Introduction to Sociology – 3rd Canadian Edition by William Little is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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