Unit Five: Socialization


socializationSocialization refers to the process by which people learn the characteristics of their group- the attitudes, values and actions thought appropriate for them. Because societies exist beyond our individual life spans, socialization can be viewed as an ongoing process of cultural transmission. The socialization process is important in the development of our self-concept. Our self-concept is the self we are aware of. Herein lies the connection between sociology and psychology. Our personalities are in a sense an internalization of our social experiences. Socialization is intended to turn us into conforming members of society. Socialization can be thought of as the “society within you”. Are people in Wisconsin “born’ to be Green Bay Packers fans, or does the society in which in they live “teach” them to become Packers fans?

Learning to be Human and the Nature v. Nurture Debate

What makes us human? Both nature and nurture influence our development. But sociologists tend to lean towards the nurture side to explain our behavior. The nature/nurture debate focuses on the question, “How did I become who I am?” Does my personality/behavior come from the genetic material given to me by my parents, or has the culture/environment in which I have been raised shaped who I am?

The nature versus nurture debate is a disagreement over the importance of biology (nature) and the social environment (nurture). The nature side of the argument believes in biological determinism, which says that biology, most notably the genetic makeup we inherit from our parents, is almost completely responsible for human behavior. This school of thought believes that biology explains human actions such as crime, violence, and addictive behavior.

At the other end of the debate are those who believe in social determinism, which says that culture and the social environment almost completely shape human behavior. This theory believes that humans are the product of social learning that occurs through the socialization process.

A good place to begin the debate is looking at the role of genes. The genes we inherit from our parents are responsible for such things as height. But genes represent the “potential” for a trait. How those traits are expressed in a particular person depends on the physical and social environment into which a person is born. If two children have the same gene for height, but one is born into poverty and malnourished while the other is born into affluence and well fed, the poor child will likely grow up to be shorter than the affluent child.

Biology matters. But humans are much more than their biology.

Outlined below are a number of important cases to the field of sociology in understanding the role of the environment in making us human.

Nature vs. Nurture Debate

The Case for Nurture

1. Social Isolation

The Case of Isabelle

Isabelle was a young girl who lived with her deaf-mute mother in her grandfather’s attic during the 1930’s. She was forced to live in the attic and the only contact with humans was with her mother. At the age of 6 Isabelle and her mother escaped. When social workers discovered her she could not speak. She was fearful and hostile towards strangers. After a few months of language training Isabelle was able to speak a few sentences. Within two years she had reached the intellectual level for her age. She went on to school and participated in all the activities that other children do. The case of Isabelle shows us the importance of human society in making us human.

The Case of Genie

Genie was a young girl of thirteen when she came in contact with social workers. She had been kept in a room, tied to a chair for most of her life by her deranged father. When she was discovered she weighed only 59 pounds and had the mental development of a one year old. she had no social skills and could not speak. With all the research that was conducted, her physical condition improved but not her cognitive development. As of 2016 it was believed she was living in a home for developmentally disabled adults somewhere in California.  Genie’s case, as compared to Isabelle’s above shows that personality development in human beings can recover from abuse and short term neglect can recover but that there is a point at which childhood neglect is too severe which causes permanent developmental damage.

1.Genie the Case of an Isolated Child


2. The case of Institutionalized Children

cambodianorphansDuring the 1970’s and 1980’s, Romania had a state system of poorly run orphanages. The children were well fed and clothed, but they received little stimulation and inadequate attention. After Romania’s communist government fell, agencies in the West took an interest in the children. Many children were adopted or put into foster homes. Researchers have been studying the children since. The stress caused by the infants’ social deprivation apparently inhibited the production of key growth hormones, causing stunted mental and physical development.

Studies of institutionalized children show that those children who received nurturing care versus those who did not, demonstrated higher intelligence and less dependency on institutionalized care. (Rene Spitz Study 1945) Without nurture, the human child is less likely to survive, much less thrive. At the most basic level, human infants need to be held or they will die.

3. Children Placed in the Care of Women in a Mental Institution

This case also takes place during the 1930’s. In orphanages, babies were often kept in standard hospital cribs that often had protective sheeting on the sides, effectively limiting visual stimulation. No toy or other object were hung in the infants’ line of vision. Human interactions were limited to busy nurses changing diapers or bedding. Researchers thought the problem was the absence of stimulating social interaction. Children around the age of 18 months old with recognizable mental challenges were placed in the care of women who were in a mental institution. The women, ages 18 – 50, spent time each day with the children. They would take care not only of the baby’s physical needs, diapering, feeding, etc…, but also played and cuddled with the children. Researchers left a control group of similar age children at the orphanage. There, the received the normal care. Two and a half years later, the psychologists measured the intelligence of both groups. The children assigned to the women in the mental institution gained an average of 28 IQ points, while those at the orphanage lost an average of 30 points. What happened when the children became adults? The people in the control group averaged less than a third-grade education. For the group that received care from the institutionalized women, their average education was at the twelfth grade, with some going on to college. The picture above is of an orphanage in Siern Reap, Cambodia. The babies are drugged and hung in mesh baskets for up to ten hours a day. The staff of the orphanage pockets most of the money contributed by Westerners for the children’s care. The treatment of these children is likely to affect their ability to reason and to function as adults.

More Info on the Skeels and Dye Study

4. Identical Twin Studies

identicaltwinsIdentical twins offer sociologists a unique opportunity to study the affects of nature and nurture. In a sense, identical twins factor out the nature or biological component, since they share the same genetic makeup. It is difficult to factor out the nurture side of identical twins raised in the same house. Research has shown that identical twins in their later years will have some personality traits in common, demonstrating the impact of nature. But the culture in which they were raised shows an even more profound impact on their personality development, demonstrating the strong impact of nurture. Do you think the identical girls pictured above have identical personalities, or different personalities? Identical twins raised in different homes provides evidence of the affect of nurture. Such is the case with Jack Yufe and Oskar Stohr, identical twins born in the 1930’s but raised in different homes because of a divorce. Researchers figured that because Jack and Oskar had the same genes any differences they showed would have to be the result of their environment- their different social experiences. When studied years later, they were found to have some quirky habits in common ( they both liked sweet liquor, had problems with math, flushed the toilet both before and after using it) but for the most part, their personalities were quite different. Oskar, raised in Nazi occupied Czechoslovakia, was conservative, enjoyed leisure, and was not proud of his Jewish heritage. Jack, raised in French occupied Trinidad, was liberal, a workaholic, and proud of his Jewish ancestry. For sociologists, the wide difference in personalities between the two seems to provide evidence of the impact of the environment on human development.

New research is pointing to an interplay between nature and nurture. Genes can “interact” with the environment.  Genes provide potential for a trait, but environmental conditions determine whether that potential will be realized.  U.S.–born Asians are twice as likely as immigrants from Asia to suffer from prostate cancer, and Asian-American adolescents born in the United States are more than twice as likely to be obese as Asian-American adolescents who recently immigrated to the United States. U.S.–born Asians and immigrant Asians are likely to have similar genetic predispositions for prostate cancer and obesity.  The prevalence of these disorders are likely to be caused by environmental conditions such as lifestyle and diet.


The “nature vs. nurture” argument is a compelling one for sociologists. The question of whether biological traits influence our behavior or that environmental factors affect our behavior has continued to create controversy. Most sociologists will cite environmental factors as the more important of the two. But they don’t discount the importance of biology.

Gender Socialization

gendersocialization1Every society channels its members behavior through gender socialization. Gender socialization is the way society sets children onto different paths in life because they are male or female. How do the images pictured above and below influence gender for males and females in our society? Ask yourself, how did you acquire traits that are deemed male or female?

gendersocialization2The two institutions most responsible for gender socialization are the family and the mass media. Our parents are the first people who teach us appropriate behavior for being a male or female. On the basis of their sex, parents expose their children to different types of toys, clothes, and play activities. The mass media is influential in displaying powerful images on television and in music to large audiences in reinforcing society’s expectations of gender. Because boys and girls are separated into different groups beginning in childhood, they develop and assimilate the meanings that our society associates with the sexes. By the time children reach the age of three, they are able to attach meanings of gender to themselves and others. Parents may socialize a biological boy (XY chromosomes) into a traditional masculine role, which includes traditional gender characteristics like: independence, courage, and aggressiveness. Likewise, parents may socialize a biological female (XX chromosomes) into the traditional feminine role, including characteristics like: submissiveness, emotionality, and empathy. Assuming both children feel like their gender roles fit their identities, the masculine boy and feminine girl will behave in ways that reflect their genders. For instance, the boy may play with toy soldiers and join athletic teams. The girl, on the other hand, may play with dolls and bond with other girls in smaller groups.

Traditional Gender Characteristics
feminine characteristics masculine characteristics
submissive dominant
dependent independent
emotional rational
receptive assertive
intuitive analytical
timid brave
passive active
sensitive insensitive

Sociological Theories and Gender Socialization

Structural – Functionalist Explanations of Gender Socialization: The division of labor based upon sex has survived because it is beneficent and efficient for society. This view states that even today, this is the case. (Parsons and Shills) argued in the 1950s that family stability was maintained because one member, the male assumed the “instrumental role” of bread winner; while the female adopted the “expressive role” of managing relationships within the family and keeping it together. (If both members were to work, this would place strain on the family because of role competition). This sexual division of labor traces its roots to prehistoric times where women’s movement was restricted due to child-bearing and nurturing. Men had more freedom of movement and thus, adopted instrumental roles.

Conflict Theory View of Gender Socialization: Conflict theorists will buy the idea of how gender roles developed, but they disagree as to why they have continued. In this case they would argue that such a division of labor is not necessarily beneficial to society, but has been maintained by those in power. Men have a vested interest in keeping things the way they are because they enjoy economic, political, and social privileges. Present gender role divisions are outdated– ok for hunting and gathering societies but no longer appropriate to the modern world.

The Symbolic Interactionist Viewpoint: From the micro perspective, symbolic interactionists examine gender stratification on the day-to-day level; e.g. men are more likely to interrupt women in conversations, their work spaces are different (reflecting greater power); etc. They also focus how gender roles are internalized by the sexes.

Sociobiology Viewpoint: Sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists argue that much of social life as we know it today has roots in human evolution and biology. According to these theories, some of the gender differences in behavior are attributable to differences in physiology. For instance, differences in sexuality and sex drives may be due to human evolution. Women, who invest more in the creation, bearing, and raising of children, may have a greater propensity toward monogamous relationships as having a partner to help them improves the chances of their child’s survival. Men, on the other hand, may be inclined less toward monogamy and more toward polygamous relationships as their investment in offspring can be (and often is) far smaller than that of women. Evolutionary psychologists and sociobiologists use this theory to explain differences in sexual behavior, attitudes, and attractions between men and women: women tend to be attracted to men who can provide support (i.e., protection and resources) and prefer fewer sexual partners than do men; men, on the other hand, are attracted to fertile women (the symbols of which have change over time) and prefer more sexual partners.

Here is a question to consider. What would happen to a society that tried to eliminate gender socialization?

Agents of Socialization

The agents of socialization are the people and groups that influence our self-concept, emotions, attitudes and behavior. Those agents of socialization are:

The Family

family1The family is the most important agent of socialization. Our parents are our first teachers. The nurturing we receive from them at home is essential to normal cognitive, emotional, and physical development. Parents attempt to install conformity and obedience, as well as teach basic skills necessary for survival outside the family. A family’s race, religion, and social class also influence the development of a child’s self-concept.


schoolroomIn more developed societies, education has become an institutionalized feature of everyday life for children. The primary function of schools is to disseminate information that is necessary for functioning in a modern society. It’s in schools that children first learn that levels of achievement influence status in groups. Schools also transmit society’s main cultural values and norms.


religionsocializationReligion is an important source for values in moral principles in every society. The various religious doctrines give individuals a prescription of appropriate roles and behaviors. Religion is also an important source for learning gender roles. Religion is so significant, that a later chapter is devoted to its influence.

Peer Groups

Peer groups are individuals of the same age who are linked by common interests. Peer groups influence the values and lifestyles at each age, but are most pronounced for young adults. The judgments of one’s peer group is deemed important in helping us get an accurate picture of how we appear to others. The peer group has another attraction to children in that unlike the other agents of socialization, it allows children to escape the direction supervision of adults.

The Workplace

officeworkersMost of us will spend a significant portion of our lives working for wages outside of the home with other adults. It is only logical then that our working environments would have such a profound influence on our self-concepts. Most people place a strong emphasis on their self-concept from the work-role identity. Ask yourself, what is the first question you ask a new acquaintance after their name?

The Mass Media

massmediaMany people believe that the mass media, particularly television, rivals the family as the most important agent of socialization on a child’s life. With the average person spending more time watching television, listening to music, playing video games, or surfing the internet, it is hard to ignore the important influence the mass media has on the development of our self-concept.

  1.  Study Says Teens Spend an Average of Nine Hours Per day on Media


Human beings often spend a lifetime learning their social roles. Sometimes we are forced to abandon our self-concept and way of life for a radically different one. This is called resocialization. Changing the social behavior and values that one has acquired over a lifetime of experience is difficult, and few people undertake the change voluntarily.


Resocialization involves learning new norms, behaviors, values and attitudes to match a new situation in life. Examples would be someone entering or leaving prison, someone entering a monastery or nunnery, or someone becoming permanently disabled. Resocialization is not an easy process. It is most efficiently done in what are called total institutions. Total institutions are places in which all aspects of life are completely controlled for the purpose of drastic resocialization. It is a place where people are cut off from the rest of society and where the institution officials have complete control. Total Institutions are created for a number of reasons, which include:

1) to care for people who are defined as incapable and harmless (orphanages and nursing homes)

2) to care for people who cannot care for themselves but represent a unintentional threat to the community ( psychiatric hospitals)

3) to protect a community from those who authorities define as posing a danger (prisons, concentration camps)

4) to pursue a specific task requiring the total commitment of participants ( the military and boarding schools)

5) to create a retreat from the world (monasteries, convents)

A major component of resocialization is the degradation ceremony. This is an attempt to remake the self by stripping away the individual’s current identity and putting a new one in its place. Think of what happens to an individual when he/she enters a prison. Becoming an inmate involves fingerprinting, becoming a number, having one’s head shaved, and wearing a uniform. What sort of resocialization would the soldiers pictured above have to go through?

Socialization and the Life Course

All humans pass through different stages in their life. At each stage, the various agents of socialization influence their behaviors and views of the world. Social factors such as location, class and gender influence experiences at each stage. The historical time period a person lives in also influences their development. The process of change from one life stage to another can involve a shift in a person’s responsibilities, living situation, or standing within the community. Moments of transition often involve initiation ceremonies or rites of passage. Rites of Passage are activities that mark and celebrate a change in a person’s social status. Sometimes they are rooted in religion (confirmation, bar mitzvah) or they are more secular in nature (graduation ceremony, or a wedding).

childhood1. Childhood. In western societies at least, childhood usually extends from birth to the age of twelve. In the United States, a child in this age group would be expected to attend school and play a variety of activities with friends. It is a period for children to learn and play. It would seem odd to Americans to have their children working outside the home at this age. But this is not how childhood has been perceived throughout history or in all countries around the world even as we enter the twenty-first century. In many countries there are children 5 or 6 years old who work outside the home, often engaged in physical labor. Here in the United States we have child labor laws that prohibit children from working for wages. It is likely that childhood is based more on culture than on biology. Contemporary Western societies tend to view childhood as a natural condition linked to children’s physical immaturity. Children are considered innocent, with limited capacities and in need of intensive care and protection by adults.

adolescence2. Adolescence. The term adolescence was coined at the turn of the twentieth century to indicate a new stage of life in industrial countries. As child labor became deemphasized in industrial settings, and education became more important, roles changed and a gap was created between childhood and adulthood. Before industrialization, most people went from childhood straight to adulthood- which meant working, getting married, and starting a family at an early age. Because the passage into adulthood has been delayed, many adolescents find the teenage years to be marked with inner turmoil. This turbulence exists because of the contradiction between culture and biology.

adulthood3. Adulthood. Because roles and responsibilities differ from society to society, it is hard to peg an exact time when adulthood begin. In western societies, adulthood usually begins at the age of eighteen. In fact, sociologists often describe adulthood in three stages. The first is early adulthood, roughly from the age of eighteen to forty, when adults obtain education and training, pursue careers, and begin families. During this stage, personalities are formed. The early adulthood stage is also marked by high levels of stress, as people try to balance work and family commitments. The next stage of adulthood is middle adulthood. Middle adulthood usually ranges from age forty to age sixty. This stage of life is often less stressful. Most people will by this time enjoy job security and have probably reached their highest standard of living. Children have become more self-sufficient and have likely moved out of the home.

elderly4. Old Age. Old age refers to the last stage of adulthood that usually begins around the age of sixty. People in this stage begin to feel the approaching end to their lives. Careers come to an end and a new stage, “retirement” begins. Throughout history, societies have had to deal with the problems associated with members growing old. The problems usually revolve around how to allocate limited resources among societal members. Changes in medical technology have made societies rethink the viability and quality of life issues associated with the elderly. This section will look at how “growing old” has changed, as well as, the nature of age inequality.

In some societies of the world, such as the Abkhasinas in the former Soviet Union, the elderly are given a high level of respect. In other societies such as the Tiwi of northern Australia, they are not. Sociologists have noticed that age, like race or gender, is socially constructed. In many societies in the world, age is viewed as a master status, which dominates our perceptions of others. Which brings us to the question of why do some societies view the aging process different than others?

1. Social Gerontology & The Aging Revolution

2. Older Americans: 2012

Sociological Theories of Aging

The Symbolic Interactionist View of Age Discrimination


The symbolic interactionist approach focuses on the meaning of being old. Attitudes about aging have changed over time. Some members of society hold a negative stereotype of the elderly. Ageism refers to prejudice and discrimination against people based on their age. Symbolic interactionists would point out that in American society the meaning of growing old has changed. Just a few generations ago, not many people made it to old age. For those who did, it was seen as an accomplishment. They were accorded respect. With the advent of industrialization, and the reliance on young workers, the view of the elderly changed. The young began viewing the elderly as not being superior to themselves. They were often seen as financial burdens. Yet, the perception of the elderly seems to be undergoing another change in the United States. Many elderly are financially well off today. The view of them as financial burdens is changing. In addition, as the baby boomers enter old age, they will change the perception of activities for the elderly. Sexual activity, once thought the domain of young adults, is now seen as normal for the elderly. The recent introduction of the drug viagra, has also helped change our views about the length of a person’s sexual life.

The Structural – Functionalist View of Age Discrimination

retirementStructural-functionalists view age discrimination differently. This perspective wants to examine the effect of how elderly people are either giving up or being forced from positions of responsibility benefits society. Disengagement theory attempts to explain how retirement is used as a device to ensure that society’s positions are successfully passed from one generation to the next. For example, many societies use pensions as a way to get the elderly to hand over their positions to the younger members of society. This opens up god paying jobs for young to people to raise a family on.  Some sociologists are critical of this view. They claim the elderly do not disengage from their roles, but instead exchange them for a new set of roles.

1. Baby-Boomers Plan to Retire Later in Life

The Conflict Theory View of Age Discrimination

As always, the conflict theorists look at competition for scarce resources as the basis for discrimination. Conflict theorists would say that even though the old and young in a society are not aware of it, there exists a struggle between them for resources. Issues of dispute, such as social security, create intergenerational conflict. Conflict theorists would say that many societies have historically viewed the elderly as a group that uses a society’s resources without contributing to them. Modern mandatory retirement is seen as an extension of this. Those workers between 25 and 65 see good paying jobs as belonging to them, and would not like to have to compete for them with the elderly. This has usually meant that when older workers retire, they become poor. In American society, this has been somewhat addressed through the creation of social security and other social programs.

The Graying of America

The graying of American refers to the increase in the number of elderly people in the United States in percentage terms. Over the last century, the number of elderly in the United States has increased dramatically. Because of a number of factors, such as health improvements, diet, and improvements in medical technology, life expectancy for people in the United States has gone up. Which means that women and men over the age of sixty-five have increased twice as fast as the population as a whole. In 1900 only 4% of the population was over 65. It is projected that by the year 2050, 20% of the population will be over 65. This will have a profound affect on American society. Who will pay for the health care expenses? How will pay for the increase in social security benefits?

65 and older a growing part of the national census

Census year Percent of total population
1900 4.1%
1920 4.7%
1940 6.8%
1960 9.2%
1980 11.3%
2000 12.6%
2020 16.5%
2040 20.3%

Source: US Census Bureau.

The graying of America

The 85 and older population is the fastest-growing demographic cohort

Year Population of
85 and older
of population
1900 122,000 0.2%
1910 167,000 0.2%
1920 210,000 0.2%
1930 272,000 0.2%
1940 363,000 0.3%
1950 577,000 0.4%
1960 929,000 0.5%
1970 1,409,000 0.7%
1980 2,240,000 1.0%
1990 3,059,000 1.2%
2000 (est.) 4,259,000 1.6%
2010 (est.) 5,671,000 1.9%
2020 (est.) 6,460,000 2.0%
2030 (est.) 8,455,000 2.4%
2030 (est.) 13,552,000 3.7%
2030 (est.) 18,223,000 4.6%

actionSociology in Film

Below are a list of movies that exhibit sociological concepts learned in this unit.

The Boys From Brazil. This film explores the nature vs. nurture debate through the cloning of Hitler.

The Shawshank Redemption. This film looks at the affects of socialization and resocialization in a prison.

Nell. This film explores the effects of social isolation on a young girl.

Thirteen. A movie showing how young girls grow up faster and older than they are.

books03Sociology in Books

Below are a list of books that exhibit sociological concepts learned in this unit.

1. Fire in the Belly: On Being a Man Sam Keen

2. The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are by Robert Wright

3. Why Gender Matters: What Parents and Teachers Need to Know About the Emerging Science of Sex Differences by Leonard Sax

4. Sex, Time and Power: How Women’s Sexuality Shaped Human Evolution by Leonard Shlain

5. Passages: Predictable Crisis of Adult Life by Gail Sheehy


Brym, Robert J.
2003 Sociology: Your Compass For A New World Canada: Wadsworth Thomson Learning

Ferrante, Joan

2000 Sociology: The United States in a Global Community United States: Wadsworth Thomson Learning

Henslin, James M.
2000 Essentials of Sociology: A Down-to-Earth Approach (3rd Edition) Boston: Allyn and Bacon

Macionis, John J.

1999 Sociology. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall

Croteau, David and Hones, William

2013 Experience Sociology New York: McGraw-Hill

Copyright ©2002, 2013 Glenn Hoffarth All Rights Reserved

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