In sociology, socialization is the process through which individuals learn and internalize the norms, values, beliefs, and behaviors of their society.
The process of socialization begins in childhood, when we internalize the beliefs, values, and mindsets of our parents, siblings, and culture. But it can also continues throughout our lives as we’re exposed to wide varieties of social groups and experiences.
Socialization is considered to be a prosocial process because it helps people learn how to behave appropriately within their community and understand their role within social groups.
There are several different theories about the function, form, and effects of socialization in sociology.
For example, while the functionalist perspective highly values socialziation as a means for delivering social harmony, conflict theorists see it as a way of reinforcing power structures and inequalities.
Definition of Socialization in Sociology
Socialization, from a sociological perspective, refers to all the ways in which people learn to become members of a society and culture (Turner, 2006).
A key scholarly definition is provided below:
“Socialization is the process through which people are taught to be proficient members of a society. It describes the ways that people come to understand societal norms and expectations, to accept society’s beliefs, and to be aware of societal values.” (Griffiths et al., 2017).
Here, we can see that socialization refers to the process by which we internalize social norms and develop a sense of ourselves as a social actor and member of a group with common values and attitudes (Lapinski & Rimal, 2005).
Types of Socialization
Sociologists have, for a long time, studied socialization. Throughout the literature, we find a range of different typologies and categorizations of socialization. Below are some of the most common recurring types:
- Anticipatory Socialization: Anticipatory socialization is a term introduced by sociologist Robert K. Merton (1949). It explains how people often change their behaviors and attitudes prior to joining a group with the anticipation that this will ease their transition into the group or increase their chances of being invited into it. Merton’s study demonstrated how US Army privates who copied the attitudes and behaviors of officers had more chances to be promoted than those who did not.
- Resocialization: Resocialization refers to shedding previously socialized attitudes and behaviors and taking on new ones that will serve you better in a new environment. For example, a college student who transitions into a corporate job may realize the workplace has different norms and values to the college dorm, so they start changing how they dress, act, and react to situations, to better fit their new environment.
- Developmental Socialization: This refers to the ways in which socialization occurs throughout a lifespan, demonstrating how we continue to be socialized into new social roles, attitudes, and behaviors as we enter new stages of life. For example, the transition to parenthood may lead to an entirely new social role, and we’ll be socialized into that role by speaking with doctors, midwives, early childhood educators, etc.
- Reverse Socialization: This is the process where younger generations socialize older generations. While traditionally we think of parents socializing their children (Witt, 1997), it’s also often the reverse, such as when we may observe children teaching their parents the norms of using new technologies, emojis, and so forth.
- Gender Socialization: Given that gender is one of the central concepts in sociological thought, a substantial body of literature demonstrates how we are socialized into gender roles from a very young age (Naples, 2020). Depending on the sociological paradigm, gender socialization may be seen as beneficial for social order (functionalism), or a form of oppression of women (conflict theory).
- Political Socialization: Political socialization is the process where people come to internalize a political viewpoint through their social interactions. This can happen in state-sanctioned ways (such as daily recitations of the pledge of allegiance), through media (such as watching propaganda on television all day long), being influenced by family and friend groups, or even through individual and systematic research to identify your own worldview.
Stages of Socialization
Ecological and developmental models of socialization demonstrate that we go through various ‘stages’ of socialization in our lives. Most models present three stages:
- Primary Socialization: This type occurs in childhood. It is during this time that we learn the basic behaviors and expectations of society. ‘Primary agents of socialization’ typically include our parents or caregivers, siblings, and other close family members (Whitbeck, 1999). This foundational type of socialization is essential in helping us to develop our base sense of self, an initial religious affiliation, and so on.
- Secondary Socialization: Secondary socialization represents socialization through interaction with broader members of our communities and society, such as our school, sports and recreation groups, mass media, the state, and new friends. It tends to be less strong than primary socialization, especially when we are young, but becomes more important the older we get.
- Tertiary Socialization: Also known as adult socialization, this occurs later in life, when we become exposed to new situations that change what we may have thought were our relatively stable belief and values systems. It may occur, for example, when you migrate to a new culture, meet and learn from your spouse, or experience what I earlier referred to as ‘resocialization’.
Examples of Socialization
- Family (Primary Agent): Parents teach their children to speak, to use the bathroom, or to eat with a fork and knife – these are all early examples of socialization.
- Educational Institutions (Secondary Agent): In school, children learn not just academic skills, but also societal norms and values. They learn about cooperation, punctuality, discipline, and respect for authority, for instance.
- Peers (Secondary Agent): A teenager adapting their clothing style or slang to fit in with their friends is an example of socialization through peer groups.
- Culture (Secondary Agent): Participating in cultural traditions or ceremonies, like a Thanksgiving dinner or a wedding, teaches individuals about societal values and norms.
- Religious Institution (Secondary Agent): Attending religious services or studying religious texts can socialize individuals into a particular religious worldview and its associated values and behaviors.
- Workplace (Tertiary Agent): A new employee learns the norms, expectations, and culture of their workplace – this could include everything from formal procedures to more informal practices like after-work socializing.
- Media (Secondary Agent): Watching a TV show or movie, or engaging with social media, can also socialize individuals. These media can communicate societal norms and values, or influence perceptions of reality (Kelly & Donohew, 1999).
- The State (Secondary Agent): Laws and their enforcement socialize people by setting societal norms and expectations for behavior. For instance, traffic laws teach drivers the rules of the road.
- Sporting Groups (Secondary Agent): Participating in a sports team can teach individuals about teamwork, discipline, and fair play.
Sociological Theories of Socialization
1. The Functionalist Perspective on Socialization
Functionalism is a theoretical perspective within sociology which holds that social institutions – such as the family unit, school, state, etc. – each have separate but interconnected roles in maintaining social order and socializing citizens.
A functionalist perspective tends to be quite positive toward the role and concept of socialization. It views socialization as a crucial process that helps maintain social order, stability, and cohesion in a society.
Socialization serves to transmit culture from one generation to the next, teaches us the rules, norms, and values of the social group, and overall helps us to function smoothly as a cohesive social or culturla group.
From a functionalist perspective, every member of society is ideally socialized to identify their role as a cog in society, learn to embody that role, and accept their role within the orderly society.
Functionalists also pay attention to how different social institutions contribute to socialization. They view the family, educational institutions, religious organizations, and even the media as crucial for teaching individuals how to behave and what to expect in various contexts, thereby ensuring the smooth functioning of society.
However, critics of functionalism might argue that this perspective overlooks the ways in which socialization can reinforce social inequality by teaching individuals to accept existing power structures and disparities. This is where conflict theory comes in.
Case Study: Schooling as a Social Institution
Functionalists might point to the way that schools socialize students not only in academic knowledge, but also in respect for authority, punctuality, cooperation with others, and other societal values.
2. The Conflict Theory Perspective on Socialization
Conflict theorists, which include Marxist and neo-Marxist sociologists, see socialization as a means by which the powerful reinforce the existing power structures and contribute to social inequality (Glasberg & Shannon, 2011).
In a sense, functionalism and conflict theory both see socialization as a means for reinforcing the social norms – but conflict theorists focus on the social injustices in this process.
From a conflict theory perspective, socialization is seen as a mechanism through which social hierarchies – including social class, race, gender, etc. – are reinforced and normalized (through, for example, race socialization).
By internalizing these norms and values, individuals learn to accept the existing social order, including its inequities (Macionis, 2013).
For example, conflict theorists might argue that schools not only teach academic skills, but also subtly socialize students into accepting capitalist values such as competition and the normality of wealth inequality. Similarly, they might examine how family structures, religious institutions, and media representations socialize individuals into accepting gender roles or racial stereotypes.
In this way, conflict theorists see socialization as a means of maintaining the status quo and perpetuating social inequalities, rather than merely a process for maintaining societal order and stability as functionalists do.
Case Study: Mass Media Socialization
There is a large body of sociological literature that examines how mass media has the capacity to socialize young people. For example, the depiction of gender roles in Disney models has been the topic of extensive research that aims to demonstrate how gender roles are socially constructed within children’s texts, reinforcing patriarchal ideas about how to embody an ‘idealized’ female or male identity in contemporary society (see, for example: Fiske, 2016; Maity, 2014).
3. The Symbolic Interactionist Perspective on Socialization
Symbolic interactionism explores how socialization occurs in day-to-day interactions, where meanings are negotiated and constructed in language and symbols.
The above two perspectives look at socialization from a top-down level (macro-sociology), critiquing the role of institutions in structuring society. Symbolic interactionism focuses on individuals and how they develop meaningful identities in their own lives. This is a micro-sociological perspective.
Symbolic interactionists think that critical theorists and functionalists view humans as passive people lacking agency. They think this is wrong.
Instead, a social interactionist view will perceive socialization as an active process in which individuals aren’t just passively absorbing societal norms, but actively interpreting and negotiating their social reality.
For symbolic interactionists, socialization is closely tied to the development of personal identity. Through interactions with others, individuals learn to see themselves from the perspective of others, a process known as “the looking-glass self.”
For example, a key concept in social interactionism is that of ‘role-taking’, a process where we learn to take on different roles (like student, parent, worker) in order to achieve personal self-advancement, demonstrating how we embrace social identities not because we’re duped into doing it by media, but because it is personally advantageous.
Case Study: The Looking-Glass Self
The Looking Glass Self is a concept developed by social interactionist Charles Horton Cooley. He proposes that a person’s sense of self-concept grows out of their social interactions with others. It suggests that individuals form their self-concept based on their understanding of how others perceive them. We envision how we appear to others, interpret their reactions, and subsequently develop a self-concept. In this manner, our sense of who we are is based on socialization, highlighting the critical influence of societal interaction.
Socialization is one of the central concepts you need to learn when studying sociology. It’s central to sociological studies because socialization is the process of forming societies, social identities, and social hierarchies, which are the key concepts that sociologists explore. Depending on the theoretical framework from which you examine the concept, you’ll be able to see socialization from a different lens and critique its form and function in a variety of differing ways.
Durkheim, É. (2002). Introduction à la sociologie de la famille: Fonctions sociales et institutions. J.-M. Tremblay. (Original work published 1888)
Fiske, J. (2010). Television culture. London: Routledge.
Glasberg, D. S. & Shannon, D. (2011). Political Sociology: Oppression, resistance, and the state. Pine Forge Press.
Griffiths, H., Strayer, E., & Cody-Rydzewski, S. (2017). Introduction to Sociology 2e. Open Books.
Kelly, K., & Donohew, L. (1999). Media and Primary Socialization Theory. Substance Use & Misuse, 34(7), 1033–1045. https://doi.org/10.3109/10826089909039395
Lapinski, M. K., & Rimal, R. N. (2005). An Explication of Social Norms. Communication Theory, 15(2), 127–147. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-2885.2005.tb00329.x
Macionis, J. J. (2013). Sociology. 15th ed. Pearson.
Maity, N. (2014). Damsels in distress: A textual analysis of gender roles in Disney princess films. IOSR Journal of Humanities and Social Science, 19(10), 28-31.
Naples, N. A. (2020). Companion to Women’s and Gender Studies. London: John Wiley & Sons.
Turner, B. S. (2006). The Cambridge Dictionary of Sociology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Whitbeck, L. B. (1999). Primary Socialization Theory: It All Begins with the Family. Substance Use & Misuse, 34(7), 1025–1032. https://doi.org/10.3109/10826089909039394
Witt, S. D. (1997). Parental influence on children’s socialization to gender roles. Adolescence, 32(126), 253.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]