SOCIALIZATION

Socialization is a concept that is studied in many different areas of social science and can be adequately explained by any number of disciplines. The general topic of socialization forms the backdrop for numerous lines of research in diverse academic areas such as anthropology, sociology, criminology, and all areas of psychology. The study of socialization differs according to academic domain. For instance, in sociology, socialization is studied in terms of groups of institutions where socialization occurs, whereas anthropology looks at socialization in the larger culture. In this entry, socialization is approached from a psychological perspective, focused on the development of characteristics related to social behavior in individuals.

The term socialization refers to the process by which people learn culture, roles, and norms in order to function within a society. The socialization of culture includes learning the language, beliefs, and social structure of the culture in which an individual lives. The socialization of roles includes providing structure and instruction as to how to act in different situations individuals are likely to encounter within their culture. Finally, socializing group norms refers to learning the expected and appropriate behavior in a society in order to productively interact with others. Each of these three elements is integral to successful participation in society.

Though socialization is essential to functioning in society, it sometimes may have negative consequences. Some socialization experiences induce conformity and discourage independent thought: An example of this occurs in certain religious cults where conformity is encouraged and dissent is viewed harshly. Another example of the negative consequences of socialization is the internalizing of various stereotypes. Regardless of whether the socialization experience encourages conformity or independent thought, the end goal is to have individuals who are able to successfully interact within a given society.


Socialization occurs throughout one’s lifetime, but it is particularly important during childhood, when the child’s personality is taking shape. In early childhood children are socialized to learn the fundamentals of language and culture, which will affect behavior and outcomes throughout their lives. In addition, the way children are socialized and what behaviors are learned as appropriate and acceptable affect personality development with consequences that affect their entire lives. But socialization continues throughout one’s entire life as new roles are undertaken and expected behaviors in each role are learned.

In many cultures, women are the first socializing agents in their capacity as the infant’s primary caregiver. Primary caregivers of infants and young children have the unique task of socializing the child into the culture and society in which the child lives. These caregivers often are influential in teaching acceptable behaviors and rules as well as fundamental skills such as language development.

Beyond the primary caregiver, the family as a whole has a large role in socialization. This venue is the first social structure for the child, and much social behavior is learned in this arena. As the child develops, teachers, schools, and peer groups become important socializing agents. Mass media also socializes throughout the life span, and religious influences are also important. Each of these domains is somewhat controlled by the family. Family influence on children’s neighborhoods and peer groups affects what types of socializing agents the child has access to. On a wider level, each of these domains is influenced by the government. The government exerts influence on socialization through creating experiences common to all children, such as schooling. In this domain, government has a powerful role in determining what can and cannot be learned, thus implicitly socializing the child to what things are and are not acceptable. Through the creation of laws and enforcement of acceptable behaviors, government also affects the family; for example, by enforcing laws that state that parents are not permitted to physically harm their children, the government dictates what types of behaviors children are subject to and, more generally, what types of behaviors are desirable and undesirable in society.

Research has suggested that socialization is not a unidirectional phenomenon. In reciprocal socialization parents socialize children and children in turn socialize parents. Children act as socializing agents to parents in a most basic sense as parents must be socialized to the parent role—infants demand certain care and have fundamental needs of their parents. In addition, various outside influences act on children in ways that affect parents and change their behaviors as well. For example, schooling may affect parental behaviors by placing increasing demands on children which parents must accommodate. In addition, increasing peer influences may require parents to modify strategies and behaviors in interacting with their child. Individual characteristics of children, such as their levels of attractiveness and temperaments, may also be factors in the socialization of parents. Newly arrived immigrant families provide a clear example of reciprocal socialization. Parents in these families may learn much of the new country’s language and culture from their children as the children have more opportunities to learn (e.g., in school) and are more able to learn new expected roles. In this way, children socialize parents to new roles, and parents socialize children in basic behaviors.

MECHANISMS

Socialization occurs through a variety of mechanisms, both directly and indirectly. Direct socialization occurs through the formal teaching of behaviors and includes reinforcement of accepted behaviors. Schooling, an important source of direct influence, is very controlled: Roles are highly defined and behaviors are explicitly taught and reinforced. Direct socialization occurs throughout one’s life. In professional socialization individuals are explicitly taught new behaviors and accepted patterns of social interaction. Although socialization during childhood provides the backdrop for which individuals can successfully maneuver within society, as people age, their socialization becomes more specialized as they learn how to act in specific social situations and be successful in specific arenas.

Indirect socialization, on the other hand, is more informal. This type of socialization may occur anywhere and at any time. Noting what behaviors are successful for others and then imitating these behaviors is an example of indirect socialization. By providing access to situations and restrictions from other situations, socializing agents informally affect what roles and behaviors are learned. Through this method, children are not explicitly taught about acceptable behaviors, but nonetheless are socialized to them.

The psychologist Albert Bandura proposed a theory often used to understand socialization experiences, advocating a social-learning approach in which children learn social behaviors via a variety of ways. Children learn through observational learning of others’ behaviors and through modeling these behaviors, as well as through reinforcement. This reinforcement can be directly given to the child, or the child may learn through vicarious reinforcement, in which another individual is observed to be rewarded or punished for behaviors; through this process the child learns which behaviors are acceptable and which are not.

In both direct and indirect methods of socialization it is important to note that socialization is a process both of learning and of being taught. Both experiences are important socializing influences. The process of learning emphasizes the active role of children, who must make sense of their social world in active ways that allow them to explore possible avenues of behavior. In addition, children have individual traits that affect socialization such as temperament, which predisposes each individual to different types of socialization and socializing agents.


Different factors have been found to affect the effectiveness of socialization. Two often studied factors are attachment to parents and parenting style. Attachment theory suggests that infants’ relationships with their care-givers form working models of relationships in general that in turn affect children’s understanding of the world and their interactions within social arenas. How children form these attachment relationships is an important factor in socialization in that it is through these relationships that they indirectly learn how to behave in the world interpersonally and to form expectations about other people. This process provides an important source of experience upon which children draw to learn to act within their social worlds.

Diana Baumrind (1967) studied parenting style in terms of two dimensions: demandingness and responsiveness. She initially proposed three parenting styles: authoritarian (demanding but unresponsive parenting), authoritative (demanding and responsive parenting), and permissive (not demanding but responsive). Maccoby and Martin (1983) later added a fourth category, neglectful, encompassing parenting styles that are neither demanding nor responsive. In relation to socialization, parenting styles influence the methods by which the parents socialize their child and the effectiveness of the messages parents attempt to transmit. The emotional climate that is created through parenting style affects how children receive messages and how they are interpreted.

EFFECTS

Socialization has many effects on individual behavior and personality. First, it is integral to forming personalities in children. The very nature of socialization dictates that some beliefs and attitudes are reinforced and that there is only selective exposure to other possible attitudes. Children are thus given a set of acceptable behaviors and attitudes from which to form their personalities, creating a firm boundary of possibilities for personality formation.

Children also learn values through the process of socialization. Different sources of socialization including parents, teachers, and the media all have influences on what values the child learns are important. For example, from watching various sources of media in western cultures, most children learn that physical appearance is highly valued, and they mirror this belief in their own value systems. These influences provide the lens through which children view their social world and shape how they will continue to view the world into adulthood.

Socialization processes also affect the developing child through the learning of social and automatic biases about individuals and groups of people. As a part of socialization, children may learn what behaviors are expected and acceptable for different groups of people and may thus form stereotypes about these groups; a common set of stereotypes formed in this way are gender stereotypes. Through these socialization processes the roots of various psychological phenomena studied in social psychology, such as in-group biases, may be found.

TYPES OF SOCIALIZATION

Socialization is often studied in relation to specific roles that individuals take within society. Two primary examples of this line of research are gender socialization and racial socialization. The term gender socialization refers to the process by which children learn expectations of behavior for males and females. In children, gender socialization begins through differential treatment based on sex. Boys and girls are treated differently by important adult socializing agents according to what is considered to be acceptable gendered behaviors. Social learning theory is often applied to gender socialization as children are seen to be rewarded and punished for acceptable behaviors, and because they imitate same-sex gender models. This theory posits that children are passive recipients of these messages, but evidence suggests that children selectively and actively process the information they choose to imitate. A more active theory of gender socialization, gender schema theory, posits that children actively form cognitive sets of ideas about gender that help to organize information within their social world.

Racial and ethnic socialization refers to the transmission of messages about how different racial groups fit within society and the relationships between different racial and ethnic groups. Racial socialization is heavily emphasized within some families and in other families it is not considered an important aspect of socialization. As a part of this process, children are taught what behaviors to expect from others based on the race or ethnicity of individuals the child encounters, and they are taught various strategies with which to respond. Racial socialization is directly related to the racial identity that an individual adopts as he or she ages.

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