Understanding Socialization in Sociology

Overview and Discussion of a Key Sociological Concept

Young women applying makeup
Tom Merton/Getty Images

Socialization is a process that introduces people to social norms and customs. This process helps individuals function well in society, and, in turn, helps society run smoothly. Family members, teachers, religious leaders, and peers all play roles in a person's socialization.

This process typically occurs in two stages: Primary socialization takes place from birth through adolescence, and secondary socialization continues throughout one's life. Adult socialization may occur whenever people find themselves in new circumstances, especially those in which they interact with individuals whose norms or customs differ from theirs.

The Purpose of Socialization

During socialization, a person learns to become a member of a group, community, or society. This process not only accustoms people to social groups but also results in such groups sustaining themselves. For example, a new sorority member gets an insider's look at the customs and traditions of a Greek organization. As the years pass, the member can apply the information she's learned about the sorority when newcomers join, allowing the group to carry on its traditions.

On a macro level, socialization ensures that we have a process through which the norms and customs of society are transmitted. Socialization teaches people what is expected of them in a particular group or situation; it is a form of social control.

Socialization has numerous goals for youth and adults alike. It teaches children to control their biological impulses, such as using a toilet instead of wetting their pants or bed. The socialization process also helps individuals develop a conscience aligned with social norms and prepares them to perform various roles.

The Socialization Process in Three Parts

Socialization involves both social structure and interpersonal relations. It contains three key parts: context, content and process, and results. Context, perhaps, defines socialization the most, as it refers to culture, language, social structures and one’s rank within them. It also includes history and the roles people and institutions played in the past. One's life context will significantly affect the socialization process. For example, a family's economic class may have a huge impact on how parents socialize their children.

Research has found that parents emphasize the values and behaviors most likely to help children succeed given their station in life. Parents who expect their children to work blue-collar jobs are more likely to emphasize conformity and respect for authority, while those who expect their children to pursue artistic, managerial, or entrepreneurial professions are more likely to emphasize creativity and independence.

Gender stereotypes also exert a strong influence on socialization processes. Cultural expectations for gender roles and gendered behavior are imparted to children through color-coded clothes and types of play. Girls usually receive toys that emphasize physical appearance and domesticity such as dolls or dollhouses, while boys receive playthings that involve thinking skills or call to mind traditionally male professions such as Legos, toy soldiers, or race cars. Additionally, research has shown that girls with brothers are socialized to understand that household labor is expected of them but not of their male siblings. Driving the message home is that girls tend not to receive pay for doing chores, while their brothers do.

Race also plays a factor in socialization. Since White people don't disproportionately experience police violence, they can encourage their children to know their rights and defend them when the authorities try to violate them. In contrast, parents of color must have what's known as "the talk" with their children, instructing them to remain calm, compliant, and safe in the presence of law enforcement.

While context sets the stage for socialization, the content and process constitute the work of this undertaking. How parents assign chores or tell their kids to interact with police are examples of content and process, which are also defined by the duration of socialization, those involved, the methods used, and the type of experience.

School is an important source of socialization for students of all ages. In class, young people receive guidelines related to behavior, authority, schedules, tasks, and deadlines. Teaching this content requires social interaction between educators and students. Typically, rules and expectations are both written and spoken, and student conduct is either rewarded or penalized. As this occurs, students learn behavioral norms suitable for school.

In the classroom, students also learn what sociologists describe as "hidden curricula." In her book "Dude, You're a Fag," sociologist C.J. Pasco revealed the hidden curriculum of gender and sexuality in U.S. high schools. Through in-depth research at a large California school, Pascoe revealed how faculty members and events like pep rallies and dances reinforce rigid gender roles and heterosexism. In particular, the school sent the message that aggressive and hypersexual behaviors are generally acceptable in White boys but threatening in Black ones. Though not an "official" part of the schooling experience, this hidden curriculum tells students what society expects of them based on their gender, race, or class background.

Results are the outcome of socialization and refer to the way a person thinks and behaves after undergoing this process. For example, with small children, socialization tends to focus on control of biological and emotional impulses, such as drinking from a cup rather than from a bottle or asking permission before picking something up. As children mature, the results of socialization include knowing how to wait their turn, obey rules, or organize their days around a school or work schedule. We can see the results of socialization in just about everything, from men shaving their faces to women shaving their legs and armpits.

Stages and Forms of Socialization

Sociologists recognize two stages of socialization: primary and secondary. Primary socialization occurs from birth through adolescence. Caregivers, teachers, coaches, religious figures, and peers guide this process.

Secondary socialization occurs throughout our lives as we encounter groups and situations that were not part of our primary socialization experience. This might include a college experience, where many people interact with members of different populations and learn new norms, values, and behaviors. Secondary socialization also takes place in the workplace or while traveling somewhere new. As we learn about unfamiliar places and adapt to them, we experience secondary socialization.

Meanwhile, group socialization occurs throughout all stages of life. For example, peer groups influence how one speaks and dresses. During childhood and adolescence, this tends to break down along gender lines. It is common to see groups of children of either gender wearing the same hair and clothing styles.

Organizational socialization occurs within an institution or organization to familiarize a person with its norms, values, and practices. This process often unfolds in nonprofits and companies. New employees in a workplace have to learn how to collaborate, meet management's goals, and take breaks in a manner suitable for the company. At a nonprofit, individuals may learn how to speak about social causes in a way that reflects the organization's mission.

Many people also experience anticipatory socialization at some point. This form of socialization is largely self-directed and refers to the steps one takes to prepare for a new role, position, or occupation. This may involve seeking guidance from people who've previously served in the role, observing others currently in these roles, or training for the new position during an apprenticeship. In short, anticipatory socialization transitions people into new roles so they know what to expect when they officially step into them.

Finally, forced socialization takes place in institutions such as prisons, mental hospitals, military units, and some boarding schools. In these settings, coercion is used to re-socialize people into individuals who behave in a manner fitting of the norms, values, and customs of the institution. In prisons and psychiatric hospitals, this process may be framed as rehabilitation. In the military, however, forced socialization aims to create an entirely new identity for the individual.

Criticism of Socialization

While socialization is a necessary part of society, it also has drawbacks. Since dominant cultural norms, values, assumptions, and beliefs guide the process, it is not a neutral endeavor. This means that socialization may reproduce the prejudices that lead to forms of social injustice and inequality.

Representations of racial minorities in film, television, and advertising tend to be rooted in harmful stereotypes. These portrayals socialize viewers to perceive racial minorities in certain ways and expect particular behaviors and attitudes from them. Race and racism influence socialization processes in other ways too. Research has shown that racial prejudices affect treatment and discipline of students. Tainted by racism, the behavior of teachers socializes all students to have low expectations for youth of color. This kind of socialization results in an over-representation of minority students in remedial classes and an under-representation of them in gifted class. It may also result in these students being punished more harshly for the same kinds of offenses that White students commit, such as talking back to teachers or coming to class unprepared.

While socialization is necessary, it's important to recognize the values, norms, and behaviors this process reproduces. As society's ideas about race, class, and gender evolve, so will the forms of socialization that involve these identity markers.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "Understanding Socialization in Sociology." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/socialization-in-sociology-4104466. Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. (2021, February 16). Understanding Socialization in Sociology. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/socialization-in-sociology-4104466 Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "Understanding Socialization in Sociology." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/socialization-in-sociology-4104466 (accessed March 26, 2023).