Understanding Resocialization in Sociology

Definition, Discussion, and Examples

Marines running in training camp demonstrate the process of resocialization.
U.S. Marines run in formation during training exercises September 24, 2001 at Camp Pendleton, CA, north of San Diego. David McNew/Getty Images

Resocialization is a process in which a person is taught new norms, values, and practices that foster their transition from one social role to another. Resocialization can involve both minor and major forms of change and can be both voluntary or involuntary. The process ranges from simply adjusting to a new job or work environment, to moving to another country where you have to learn new customs, dress, language and eating habits, to even more significant forms of change like becoming a parent. Examples of involuntary resocialization include becoming a prisoner or a widow, among others.

Resocialization differs from the formative, lifelong process of socialization in that the latter directs a person's development whereas the former redirects their development.

Learning and Unlearning

Sociologist Erving Goffman defined resocialization as a process of tearing down and rebuilding an individual’s role and socially constructed sense of self. It is often a deliberate and intense social process and it revolves around the notion that if something can be learned, it can be unlearned.

Resocialization can also be defined as a process that subjects an individual to new values, attitudes, and skills defined as adequate according to the norms of a particular institution, and the person must change in order to function adequately according to those norms. A prison sentence is a good example. The individual not only has to change and rehabilitate his behavior in order to return to society, but he must also accommodate the new norms required of living in a prison.

Resocialization is also necessary among people who have never been socialized from the start, such as feral or severely abused children. It is also relevant for people who haven't had to behave socially for long periods of time, such as prisoners who have been in solitary confinement.

But, it can also be a subtle process not directed by any particular institution, like when one becomes a parent or goes through another significant life transition, like a marriage, divorce, or the death of a spouse. Following such circumstances, one must figure out what their new social role is and how they relate to others in that role.

Resocialization and Total Institutions

A total institution is one in which a person is completely immersed in the environment which controls every aspect of day-to-day life under a singular authority. The goal of a total institution is resocialization to completely alter an individual and/or group of people's way of living and being. Prisons, the military, and fraternity houses are examples of total institutions.

Within a total institution, resocialization is comprised of two parts. First, the institutional staff attempts to break down the residents' identities and independence. This can be accomplished by making individuals give up their personal possessions, get identical haircuts and wear standard issue clothing or uniforms. It can be further achieved by subjecting individuals to humiliating and degrading processes such as fingerprinting, strip searches, and giving people serial numbers as identification rather than using their names.

The second phase of resocialization is attempting to build a new personality or sense of self which is usually accomplished with a system of reward and punishment. The goal is conformity which results when people change their behavior to accommodate the expectations of an authority figure or those of the larger group. Conformity can be established through rewards, such as allowing individuals access to a television, book or a phone.