Understanding Socialization in Sociology

Overview and Discussion of a Key Sociological Concept

Young women applying makeup
Tom Merton/Getty Images

Socialization is the process through which a person, from birth through death, is taught the norms, customs, values, and roles of the society in which they live. This process serves to incorporate new members into a society so that they and it can function smoothly. It is guided by family, teachers and coaches, religious leaders, peers, community, and media, among others.

Socialization typically occurs in two stages. Primary socialization takes place from birth through adolescence and is guided by primary caregivers, educators, and peers. Secondary socialization continues throughout one's life, and especially whenever one encounters new situations, places, or groups of people whose norms, customs, assumptions, and values may differ from one's own.

The Purpose of Socialization

Socialization is the process by which a person learns to be a member of a group, community, or society. Its purpose is to incorporate new members into social groups, but it also serves the dual purpose of reproducing the groups to which the person belongs. Without socialization, we would not even be able to have a society because there would be no process through which the norms, values, ideas, and customs that compose a society could be transmitted.

It is through socialization that we learn what is expected of us by a given group or in a given situation. In effect, socialization is a process that serves to preserve social order by keeping us in line with expectations. It is a form of social control.

The goals of socialization are to teach us to control biological impulses as children, to develop a conscience that fits with the norms of society, to teach and develop meaning in social life (what is important and valued), and to prepare us for various social roles and how we will perform them.

The Process of Socialization in Three Parts

Socialization is an interactive process that involves social structure and social relations between people. While many people think of it as a top-down process by which individuals are directed to accept and internalize the norms, values, and customs of the social group, it is, in fact, a two-way process. People often push back on the social forces that work to socialize us, invoking their autonomy and free will, and sometimes changing norms and expectations in the process. But for now, let's focus on the process as it is directed by others and by social institutions.

Sociologists recognize that socialization contains three key aspects: context, content and processes, and results. The first, context, is perhaps the most defining feature of socialization, as it refers to culture, language, the social structures of a society (like hierarchies of class, race, and gender, among others) and one’s social location within them. It also includes history, and the people and social institutions involved in the process. All of these things work together to define the norms, values, customs, roles, and assumptions of a particular social group, community, or society. Because of this, the social context of one’s life is a significant determining factor in what one’s process of socialization will entail, and what the desired results or outcome of it will be.

For example, the economic class of a family can have a significant effect on how parents socialize their children. Sociological research conducted in the 1970s found that parents tend to emphasize the values and behaviors that are most likely to produce success for their children, given the likely trajectory of their lives, which depends in large part on economic class. Parents who expect that their children are likely to grow up to work in blue collar jobs are more likely to emphasize conformity and respect for authority, while those who expect their children to go into creative, managerial, or entrepreneurial roles are more likely to emphasize creativity and independence. (See “Supervision and Conformity: A Cross-Cultural Analysis of Parental Socialization Values” by Ellis, Lee, and Peterson, published in American Journal of Sociology in 1978.)

Likewise, gender stereotypes and the patriarchal gender hierarchy of U.S. society exert strong influence on socialization processes. Cultural expectations for gender roles and gendered behavior are imparted to children from birth through color-coded clothes, toys that emphasize physical appearance and domesticity for girls (like play makeup, Barbie dolls, and play houses), versus strength, toughness, and masculine professions for boys (think toy fire engines and tractors). Additionally, research has shown that girls with brothers are socialized by their parents to understand that household labor is expected of them, and thus not to be rewarded financially, while boys are socialized to view it as not expected of them, and so they are paid for doing chores, while their sisters are paid less or not at all.

The same can be said of race and the racial hierarchy of the U.S., which produces the over-policing, over-arresting, and disproportionate experience of force and abuse by Black Americans. Because of this particular context, white parents can safely encourage their children to know their rights and defend them when police attempt to violate them. However, Black, Latino, and Hispanic parents must have "the talk" with their children, instructing them instead on how to remain calm, compliant, and safe in the presence of police.

While context sets the stage for socialization, it is the content and process of socialization—what is actually said and done by those doing the socializing—that constitutes the work of socialization. How parents assign chores and rewards for them on the basis of gender, and how parents instruct their kids to interact with police are examples of both content and process. The content and process of socialization are also defined by the duration of the process, who is involved in it, the methods they use, and whether it is a total or partial experience.

School is an important area of socialization for children, adolescents, and even young adults when they are in university. In this setting, one might think of the classes and lessons themselves as the content, but really, in terms of socialization, the content is information we are given about how to behave, follow rules, respect authority, follow schedules, take responsibility, and meet deadlines. The process of teaching this content involves social interaction between teachers, administrators, and students in which rules and expectations are posted in writing, regularly spoken allowed, and behavior is either rewarded or penalized depending on whether it is aligned or not with those rules and expectations. Through this process, normative rule-abiding behavior is taught to students in schools.

But, of particular interest to sociologists are the "hidden curriculums" that are also taught in schools and play formative roles in socialization processes. Sociologist C.J. Pasco revealed the hidden curriculum of gender and sexuality in American high schools in her celebrated book Dude, You're a Fag. Through in-depth research at a large high school in California, Pascoe showed how teachers, administrators, coaches, and school rituals like pep rallies and dances work together to illustrate through talk, interaction, and the doling of punishment that heterosexual couplings are the norm, that it is acceptable for boys to behave in aggressive and hypersexualized ways, and that black male sexuality is more threatening than that of white males. Though not an "official" part of the schooling experience, this hidden curriculum serves to socialize students into dominant social norms and expectations on the basis of gender, race, and sexuality.

Results are the outcome of the socialization process and refer to the way a person thinks and behaves after experiencing it. The intended results or goals of socialization differ, of course, with context, content, and process. For example, with small children, socialization tends to focus on control of biological and emotional impulses. Goals and results might include a child who knows to use the toilet when he or she feels the need or a child who asks permission before taking something from another that he or she desires.

Thinking about socialization that occurs throughout childhood and adolescence, goals and results include lots of things from knowing how to stand in line and wait one's turn, to obeying authority figures, rules, and law, and learning to organize one's daily life around the schedules of the institutions one is a part of, like schools, universities, or places of work.

We can see the results of socialization in just about everything we do, from men shaving their faces or trimming facial hair, to women shaving their legs and armpits, following fashion trends, and going shopping at retail outlets to fulfill our needs.

Stages and Forms of Socialization

Sociologists recognize two key forms or stages of socialization: primary and secondary. Primary socialization is the stage that occurs from birth through adolescence. It is guided by family and primary caregivers, teachers, coaches and religious figures, and one's peer group.

Secondary socialization occurs throughout our lives, as we encounter groups and situations that were not a part of our primary socialization experience. For some, this includes a college or university experience, where many encounter new or different populations, norms, values, and behaviors. Secondary socialization also takes place where we work. It is also a formative part of the travel process whenever a person visits a place where they have never been, whether that place is in a different part of the city or half-way around the world. When we find ourselves a stranger in a new place, we often encounter people with norms, values, practices, and languages that may differ from our own. As we learn about these, become familiar with them and adapt to them we are experiencing secondary socialization.

Sociologists also recognize that socialization takes some other forms, like group socialization. This is an important form of socialization for all people and occurs throughout all stages of life. An example of this that is easy to grasp is that of peer groups of children and teens. We can see the results of this form of socialization in the way kids talk, the kinds of things they talk about, the topics and personalities that they are interested in, and the behaviors they engage in. During childhood and adolescence, this tends to break down along gender lines. It is common to see peer groups of either gender in which members tend to wear the same styles or items of clothing, shoes, and accessories, style their hair in similar ways and hang out in the same places.

Another common form of socialization is organizational socialization. This form is particular to socialization that happens within an organization or institution, with the goal of incorporating a person into the norms, values, and practices of it. This is common in workplace settings and also takes place when a person joins an organization on a volunteer basis, like a political group or a non-profit that provides community services. For example, a person who takes a job at a new organization may find herself learning new work rhythms, styles of collaboration or management, and norms around when and for how long to take breaks. A person who joins a new volunteer organization may find himself learning a new way of speaking about the issues involved and may find that he is exposed to new values and assumptions that are central to how that organization operates.

Sociologists also recognize anticipatory socialization as something that many people experience in their lives. This form of socialization is largely self-directed and refers to the steps we take to prepare for a new role or relationship, position, or occupation. This can involve seeking information in a variety of ways, including from other people who already have experience in the role, observing others in these roles, and participating in a form of apprenticeship or practicing the new behaviors that the role will require. This form of socialization serves the purpose of softening a transition to a new role so that we already know, to a certain extent, what will be socially expected of us once we take it on.

Finally, forced socialization takes place in total institutions including prisons, psychological facilities, military units, and some boarding schools. Places like these operate with the goal of erasing the self as it was when a person entered, and resocializing through physical force or coercion, into a self that exists in accordance with the norms, values, and customs of the institution. In some cases, like prisons and psychological institutions, this process is framed as rehabilitation, while in others, like the military, it is about creating an entirely new role and identity for the person.

A Critical View on Socialization

While socialization is a necessary aspect of any functional society or social group, and as such is important and valuable, there are also drawbacks to the process. Socialization is not a value-neutral process because it is always guided by the dominant norms, values, assumptions, and beliefs of a given society. This means that socialization can and does reproduce the prejudices that lead to many forms of injustice and inequalities in society.

For example, common representations of racial minorities in film, television, and advertising tend to be rooted in harmful stereotypes. These portrayals socialize viewers to view racial minorities in certain ways and to expect certain behaviors and attitudes from them. Race and racism infuse socialization processes in other ways too. Research has shown that racial prejudices affect the way teachers treat students in the classroom, and to whom and how much they dole out punishment. The behavior and expectations of teachers, reflecting harmful racial stereotypes and prejudices, socializes all students, including those targeted, to have low expectations for students of color. This aspect of socialization often has the result of funneling students of color into remedial and special education classes and leads to poor academic performance thanks to a disproportionate amount of time spent in the principle's office, in detention, and at home while suspended.

Socialization on the basis of gender also tends to reproduce harmful views about how boys and girls differ and also results in differing expectations for their behavior, social roles, and academic performance. Numerous other examples of how social problems are reproduced through socialization could be cited.

So, while socialization is an important and necessary process, it's important to always consider it from a critical viewpoint that asks what values, norms, and behaviors are being taught, and to what end.