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Socialization is a concept embracing the ways people acquire the competencies required for participation in society. At the societal level, socialization helps explain how large numbers of people come to cooperate and adapt to the demands of social life. At the organizational level, it summarizes how newcomers to groups and organizations move from outsiders to participating members. At the personal level, it refers to the development of the mental, emotional, and behavioral abilities of individuals.
Sociology offers three broad orientations to socialization – functional, interactional, and critical. Functionalists view socialization as a process of role learning by which people adopt prescribed orientations to life which limit the ends to which they aspire and the means they use to achieve them. From this perspective, socialization is the imprinting of cultural patterns on personalities and a major means of integrating people into the patterns that constitute society’s institutions. This is a deep process leading people to treat external values and norms as definitive of their identity.
Functionalism has been criticized for portraying people as passive recipients of social influence. The interactionist perspective leans in the opposite direction by emphasizing the individual’s active role in socialization. For interactionists, the crux of socialization is the formation of self-concepts in the context of social relationships. Selves emerge and develop as people mutually construct versions of reality through communicative processes based on shared symbols. By learning how to communicate with symbols, individuals come to incorporate the responses of others into their actions and selves.
Interactionism and functionalism have been criticized for discounting power and inequality in social life. The various critical orientations to socialization, such as Marxism and Feminist Theory, are unified by deep concerns with power in society and the reproduction of inequalities. Proponents of critical perspectives agree that socialization is a primary mechanism of social control. Pierre Bourdieu’s critical view of socialization has gained prominence in contemporary sociology. For Bourdieu, socialization is the acquisition of habitus,” which points to processes by which people who share similar positions in society inculcate in each other deeply ingrained patterns of subjective adjustments to external social conditions.
Sociological research on socialization is organized around substantive domains. Much of this research frames socialization as a mediating process between self, social organization, and broader social conditions. Examples of these domains include the family, schools, and the media.
Families are often framed as principal agents of socialization. Family socialization has often been conceptualized as children learning their parents’ beliefs, values, worldviews, and behaviors. Some researchers argue that families are seedbeds of a child’s basic orientations to society, and that parental attitudes serve as predictors of children’s attitudes throughout life. Researchers suggest that children learn to conceptualize themselves in gendered, religious, political, racial and class terms in and through routine interactions within family life.
Studies of socialization in schools tend to highlight how socialization extends beyond the official academic curriculum. Schools provide students with early life encounters with institutional evaluations of their competencies as people, sometimes with significant effects on their self-conceptions. A prominent theme here is that teachers’ expectations of students exert powerful influences on the actual gains they make. Schools also use categories that affect the way teachers treat students and how students treat each other. Such labels not only inform the self-concepts of children, they also help students draw distinctions between themselves along various lines, including race, class and gender.
People acquire quite a bit of knowledge of the social world from mass media. Some theorists argue that the information disseminated by media mutes distinctions between fact and fiction in daily life. People’s relationship to reality” is found to be altered by the mediating images of television, cinema, Internet, and print media. A prominent theme suggests that consumption of television, magazines, and music reinforce unrealistic, negative, or stereotypical images of gender, sexuality, race and ethnicity.
Two debates about the implications of societal change for socialization beg for more attention from sociologists. First, sociologists recognize how emerging technologies are reshaping many aspects of how people relate to each other, but more research is needed on the effects of new media and computer technologies on child socialization. Second, although sociologists pay considerable attention to societal changes in family formations, they have conducted comparatively few studies of the long-range implications of social changes in families for personal development.
- Gecas, (1992) Contexts of Socialization. In: Rosenberg, M. and Turner, R. (eds.), Social Psychology: Sociological Perspectives. Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick.
- Wentworth, W. (1980) Context and Understanding: An Inquiry into Socialization Theory. Elsevier, Oxford.