Primary Agents of Socialization: Definition & 5 Examples

A primary agent of socialization is a person, place, or thing responsible for socialization during the early years of an individual’s life.

primary agents of socialization

Examples of primary agents of socialization include family, daycare, schools, peer groups, and media.

What is Socialization?

Socialization is the process through which an individual’s identity is formed through the act of interacting with others in society.

It can be of several types:

What is an Agent of Socialization?

The entity which interacts with and influences an individual in the process of socialization is called an agent of socialization.

What is a Primary Agent of Socialization?

A primary agent of socialization is a person, place, or thing responsible for socialization during the early years of an individual’s life.

The concept of primary socialization draws upon two theories from different academic disciplines:

  • Theory of cognitive development from psychology proposed by Jean Piaget (1896-1980) and
  • Theory of social behaviorism from sociology by George Herbert Mead (1863-1931)

Piaget’s cognitive development theory demonstrated how early childhood influences shape an individual’s cognitive abilities later in life.

George Herbert Mead’s social behaviorism theory proposed that the individual self is a product of social interactions. Our experiences of interacting with the people and situations around us, according to Mead, are the primary influences shaping our sense of self. 

For primary socialization (which occurs very early in the life of an individual), the family, the school, the peer group, and the media are the major agents of socialization.

It is through these that an individual first becomes aware of the rules, norms, and behavior to be adopted while interacting with society at large. 

Examples of Primary Agents of Socialization

1. The Family

The family, including parents, siblings, and grandparents, is the most important primary agent of socialization.

This is because immediate family members are usually the first people that a child interacts with.

The family is the basic building block of society. It follows then that a child should acquire their first lessons in socialization from the family itself.

From a sociological perspective, a child acquires their earliest impressions of morality, gender relations, political orientation, and discipline by observing and internalizing the behavior of their parents. (Freeman & Showel, 1951)

Talcott Parsons, an advocate of the functionalist perspective in sociology, believed that the family is the single most important agent of primary socialization for a child, shaping their personality for the rest of their lives. (Parsons & Bales, 1956)

Similarly, from a psychological perspective, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the founder of psychoanalysis held that parental influence is the most important factor in moulding an individual’s personality.

For instance, the psychoanalytic theory of mate selection holds that an individual’s choice of a life partner as an adult is based on their opposite-sex parent.

In other words, Freud thinks that men are likely to choose partners that remind them of their mothers, and women are likely to choose partners based on the kind of fathers they had. (Jedlicka, 1980)

2. Daycare

In a familial set up in which both parents work, the child spends a significant amount of time during their formative years at daycare. 

The interactions the child has at the daycare  – with other children, and with the caretakers at the daycare – influence the child’s socialization.

The range of emotions at daycare such as feelings of anxiety at separation from the parent, sense of independence, and sense of community, all play an important role in socializing the child into the norms and behaviors of society (White and Howe, 2002).

3. The School

The school is the second most important agent of primary socialization after the family.

From early childhood to reaching adulthood, school is where children spend most of their time after their home.

Teachers, seniors, and peers at school act as role models whose values, outlook, politics, and biases a child might consciously or unconsciously emulate. 

At the same time, the rigorous set of rules and regulations at school teach children the importance of laws in a society and the consequences of transgressing them.

Competition, peer pressure, and interactions with members of the opposite gender are all behaviors that a child gets socialized into at school. 

In most cases, an individual also acquires a preliminary understanding of their location in the wider social hierarchy while at school.

For instance, students of a school situated in a working class neighborhood would, over time, acquire an awareness of their position in the class hierarchy by interacting with other students.

Simultaneously, they may acquire a sense of their difference from students in upper class neighborhoods. All this goes into the formation of the self.

A related concept is the hidden curriculum, which explains all the ways schools socialize people.

4. Peer Groups

A peer group consists of individuals of similar ages, belonging to similar socio-economic backgrounds, and sharing similar interests, who interact regularly with each other.

The peer groups may interact in schools, playgrounds, and neighborhoods.

Due to the frequency and intimate nature of interaction, a peer group becomes an important agent of primary socialization. 

Among children and adolescents especially, the peer group is a powerful agent of socialization.

For instance, the playground is a place where children learn to play organized team games such as soccer or basketball, learning their various rules, and imbibing the importance of values such as teamwork, discipline, patience, and sportsmanship. 

At the same time, where an individual finds themself placed with respect to their peers shapes their sense of self. Thus, a peer group influences both an awareness of the self, and an awareness of the norms and behaviors of society.

5. Media

Mass media is one of the most powerful agents of primary socialization, especially for children and adolescents due to their impressionable minds.

Children are more likely to consume media passively and uncritically, thereby being shaped by what they see, hear, and read.

News, TV shows, films, music videos, etc. all subtly shape the idea of self and society that individuals possess.

For instance, the popular TV show Friends that premiered in the 1990s had a transformative cultural impact on the way a whole generation of young people viewed fundamental social institutions such as the family and marriage.

With its emphasis on depicting friendships as carrying more weight than family ties, and live-in relationships as being an acceptable alternative to marriage, the TV show helped socialize the millennial generation into a radical rethinking of social institutions, and by extension, society itself (Thorp, 2019).

While the show was considered radical for its time, a new generation of viewers discovering it for the first time via streaming platforms tend to find it regressive, rather than progressive (Kaplan, 2018).

Socialized into a different, more progressive, set of values through exposure to newer forms of media, such viewers tend to find the show insensitive to minority groups (Koul, 2019).

In the 21st century, with the ubiquity of the internet and smartphones, and a continuous lowering of the age barrier to accessing technology, the impact of mass media as an agent of socialization is only increasing.

Numerous studies have reported that children are now increasingly spending more time online, thereby increasing their exposure to mass media (Fairclough, 2021).

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Conclusion

The theory of socialization holds that our sense of the self is socially constructed through a complex process of interaction with those around us.

The interactions that shape an individual during the formative years of their lives constitute primary socialization, and the agents responsible for them are called agents of primary socialization.

While the most influential agents of primary socialization are those that an individual comes in contact with the earliest, and ones which are in close physical proximity to them, such as the family and the school, others such as media too can play an important role in socializing an individual even though they may be acting from a distance. 

References

Fairclough, S.J. (2021) Adolescents’ digital screen time as a concern for health and well-being? Device type and context matter. Acta Paediatrica (110), 1985-86. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/apa.15843

Freeman, H.E., & Showel, M. (1951) The role of the family in the socialization process. The Journal of Social Psychology 37(1), 97-101. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/00224545.1953.9921873

Jedlicka, J. (1980) A Test of the psychoanalytic theory of mate selection. The Journal of Social Psychology 112(2), 295-299. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224545.1980.9924331

Kaplan, I. (2018) Millennials watching ‘Friends’ on Netflix shocked by storylines. The Independent. Retrieved from: https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/friends-netflix-sexist-racist-transphobic-problematic-millenials-watch-a8154626.html

Koul, S. (2019) “Friends” hasn’t aged well. Buzzfeed.https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/scaachikoul/friends-anniversary-bad 

Parsons, T.,  & Bales, R.F. (1956)  Family, socialization and interaction process. Routledge & Kegan Paul. 

Thorp, C. (2019) Friends: the show that changed our idea of the family. BBC. https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20190920-friends-the-show-that-changed-our-idea-of-family 

White D.R., & Howe N. (2002) The socialization of children’s emotional and social behavior by day care educators. In D.Pushkar , W.M.Bukowski , A.E.Schwartzman , D.M.Stack, D.R. White (Eds) Improving Competence across the Lifespan. (pp. 79-90) New York: Springer.

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