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A family posing for a group photo socializes together.

The term socialization (also spelled Socialisation) is used by sociologists, social psychologists and educationalists to refer to the process of learning one’s culture and how to live within it. For the individual it provides the skills and habits necessary for acting and participating within their society. For the society, inducting all individual members into its moral norms, attitudes, values, motives, social roles, language and symbols is the ‘means by which social and cultural continuity are attained’ (Clausen 1968: 5).


Clausen claims that theories of socialization are to be found in Plato, Montaigne and Rousseau and he identifies a dictionary entry from 1828 that defines ‘socialize’ as ‘to render social, to make fit for living in society’ (1968: 20-1). However it was the response to a translation of a paper by George Simmel concept was incorporated into various branches of psychology and anthropology (1968: 31-52).

In the middle of the twentieth century, socialization was a key idea in the dominant American functionalist tradition of sociology. Talcott Parsons (Parsons and Bales 1956) and a group of colleagues in the US developed a comprehensive theory of society that responded to the emergence of modernity in which the concept of socialization was a central component. One of their interests was to try to understand the relationship between the individual and society – a distinctive theme in US sociology since the end of the nineteenth century. Ely Chinoy, in a 1960s standard textbook on sociology, says that socialization serves two major functions:

On the one hand, it prepares the individual for the roles he is to play, providing him with the necessary repertoire of habits, beliefs, and values, the appropriate patterns of emotional response and the modes of perception, the requisite skills and knowledge. On the other hand, by communicating the contents of culture from one generation to the other, it provides for its persistence and continuity.

Chinoy, 1961: 75

For many reasons – not least his excessive approval of modern American life as the model social system and his inability to see how gender, race and class divisions discriminated against individuals – Parsonian functionalism faded in popularity in the 1970s.

… it is no longer enough to focus on the malleability and passivity of the individual in the face of all powerful social influences. Without some idea about the individual’s own activity in shaping his social experience our perspective of socialization becomes distorted.

Graham White (1977: 5), reacting to the functionalist notion of socialization English sociologist

During the last quarter of the twentieth century the concept of ‘socialization’ has been much less central to debates in sociology that have shifted their focus from identifying the functions of institutions and systems to describing the cultural changes of postmodernity. But the idea of socialization has lived on, particularly in debates about the family and education. The institutions of the family or the school are often blamed for their failure to socialize individuals who go on to transgress social norms. On the other hand, it is through a critique of functionalist ideas about socialization that there has been an increasing acceptance of a variety of family forms, of gender roles and an increasing tolerance of variations in the ways people express their social identity.

Social norms reveal the values behind socialization. Sociologists, such as Durkheim, have noted the relationship between norms, values and roles during socialisation.


Primary socialization

Primary socialization occurs when a child learns the attitudes, values, and actions appropriate to individuals as members of a particular culture. For example if a child saw his/her mother expressing a discriminatory opinion about a minority group, then that child may think this behavior is acceptable and could continue to have this opinion about minority groups.

Secondary socialization

Secondary socialization refers to the process of learning what is appropriate behavior as a member of a smaller group within the larger society. It is usually associated with teenagers and adults, and involves smaller changes than those occurring in primary socialization. eg. entering a new profession, relocating to a new environment or society.

Developmental socialization

Developmental socialization is the process of learning behavior in a social institution or developing your social skills.

Anticipatory socialization

Anticipatory socialization refers to the processes of socialization in which a person "rehearses" for future positions, occupations, and social relationships.


Resocialization refers to the process of discarding former behavior patterns and accepting new ones as part of a transition in one's life. This occurs throughout the human life cycle (Schaefer & Lamm, 1992: 113). Resocialization can be an intense experience, with the individual experiencing a sharp break with their past, and needing to learn and be exposed to radically different norms and values. An example might be the experience of a young man or woman leaving home to join the military.

Agents of Socialization

Agents of socialization are the people and groups that influence our self-concept, emotions, attitudes, and behavior.

  1. The Family. Family is responsible for, among other things, determining one's attitudes toward religion and establishing career goals.
  2. Education. Education is the agency responsible for socializing groups of young people in particular skills and values in society.
  3. Peer groups. Peers refer to people who are roughly the same age and/or who share other social characteristics (e.g., students in a college class).
  4. The Mass Media.
  5. Other Agents: Religion, Work Place, The State.

Media and socialization

Theorists like Parsons and textbook writers like Ely Chinoy (1960) and Harry M. Johnson (1961) recognized that socialization didn’t stop when childhood ended. They realized that socialization continued in adulthood, but they treated it as a form of specialized education. Johnson (1961), for example, wrote about the importance of inculcating members of the US Coastguard with a set of values to do with responding to commands and acting in unison without question.

Later scholars accused these theorists of socialization of not recognizing the importance of the mass media which, by the middle of the twentieth century were becoming more significant as a social force. There was concern about the link between television and the education and socialization of children – it continues today – but when it came to adults, the mass media were regarded merely as sources of information and entertainment rather than moulders of personality. According to these scholars, they were wrong to overlook the importance of mass media in continuing to transmit the culture to adult members of society.

In the middle of the twentieth century the pace of cultural change was accelerating, yet Parsons and others wrote of culture as something stable into which children needed to be introduced but which adults could simply live within. As members of society we need to continually refresh our ‘repertoire of habits, beliefs, and values, the appropriate patterns of emotional response and the modes of perception, the requisite skills and knowledge’ as Chinoy (1961: 75) put it.

Some sociologists and theorists of culture have recognized the power of mass communication as a socialization device. Dennis McQuail recognizes the argument:

… the media can teach norms and values by way of symbolic reward and punishment for different kinds of behaviour as represented in the media. An alternative view is that it is a learning process whereby we all learn how to behave in certain situations and the expectations which go with a given role or status in society. Thus the media are continually offering pictures of life and models of behaviour in advance of actual experience.

McQuail 2005: 494)

Gender socialization and gender roles

Main article: Male gender role socialization
Main article: Female gender role socialization

Henslin (1999:76) contends that "an important part of socialization is the learning of culturally defined gender roles." Gender socialization refers to the learning of behavior and attitudes considered appropriate for a given sex. Boys learn to be boys and girls learn to be girls. This "learning" happens by way of many different agents of socialization. The family is certainly important in reinforcing gender roles, but so are one’s friends, school, work and the mass media. Gender roles are reinforced through "countless subtle and not so subtle ways" (1999:76).


Main article: resocialization

Resocialization is a sociological concept dealing with the process of mentally and emotionally "re-training" a person so that he or she can operate in an environment other than that which he or she is accustomed to. Resocialization into a total institution involves a complete change of personality. Key examples include the process of resocializing new recruits into the military so that they can operate as soldiers (or, in other words, as members of a cohesive unit) and the reverse process, in which those who have become accustomed to such roles return to society after military discharge.

Racial Socialization

Racial socialization also refers to the process of learning one’s culture and how to live within it, but refers more specifically to the socialization of minority ethnic groups. Racial socialization also buffers a child’s awareness of racial discrimination. Perceived racial discrimination is associated with negative mental health behaviors in adolescents such as low self-esteem, depressive symptoms, psychological distress, hopelessness, anxiety and risky behavior. Racially socialized children are aware of the presence of racial barriers, and the oppression and injustice of racial discrimination can be actively resisted through socialization, creating a stronger racial identity.

African American parents more likely to racially socialize their children if they are female, are married (compared to never married), reside in Northeast (compared to the South), and if they reside in racially mixed neighborhoods (compared to those residing in all-black neighborhoods). About one third of African American parents reportedly do nothing to help their children understand the African American experience. This lack of education is manifested by the belief that racism is no longer a social problem or it is too complicated for a child to understand, and that the discussion will discourage their child and/or allow them to accept negative images of African Americans. This is a big problem because it reinforces racism within all ethnic groups. Additionally, African American children whose parents emphasize socialization through cultural heritage and racial pride report greater feeling of closeness to other African Americans, have higher racial knowledge and awareness, and have higher test scores and better grades as a whole.

Socialization for animal species

The process of intentional socialization is central to training animals to be kept by humans in close relationship with the human environment, including pets and working dogs.


Feral animals can be socialized with varying degrees of success. Feral children are children who lack socially accepted communication skills. Reports of feral children, such as those cited by Kingsley Davis, have largely been shown to be exaggerations, or complete fabrications, with regards to the specific lack of particular skills; for example, bipedalism.


For example, the cat returns readily to a feral state if it has not been socialized properly in its young life. A feral cat usually acts defensively. People often unknowingly own one and think it is merely "unfriendly."

Socializing cats older than six months can be very difficult. It is often said that they cannot be socialized. This is not true, but the process takes two to four years of diligent food bribes and handling, and mostly on the cat's terms. Eventually the cat may be persuaded to be comfortable with humans and the indoor environment.

Kittens learn to be feral either from their mothers or through bad experiences. They are more easily socialized when under six months of age. Socializing is done by keeping them confined in a small room (i.e. bathroom) and handling them for 3 or more hours each day. There are three primary methods for socialization, used individually or in combination. The first method is to simply hold and pet the cat, so it learns that such activities are not uncomfortable. The second is to use food bribes. The final method is to distract the cat with toys while handling them. The cat may then be gradually introduced to larger spaces. It is not recommended to let the cat back outside because that may cause it to revert to its feral state. The process of socialization often takes three weeks to three months for a kitten.

Animal shelters either foster feral kittens to be socialized or kill them outright. The feral adults are usually killed or euthanized, due to the large time commitment, but some shelters and vets will spay or neuter and vaccinate a feral cat and then return it to the wild.

Socialized dogs can interact with other non-aggressive dogs of any size and shape and understand how to communicate.


In domesticated dogs, the process of socialization begins even before the puppy's eyes open. Socialization refers to both its ability to interact acceptably with humans and its understanding of how to communicate successfully with other dogs. If the mother is fearful of humans or of her environment, she can pass along this fear to her puppies. For most dogs, however, a mother who interacts well with humans is the best teacher that the puppies can have. In addition, puppies learn how to interact with other dogs by their interaction with their mother and with other adult dogs in the house.

A mother's attitude and tolerance of her puppies will change as they grow older and become more active. For this reason most experts today recommend leaving puppies with their mother until at least 8 to 10 weeks of age. This gives them a chance to experience a variety of interactions with their mother, and to observe her behavior in a range of situations.

It is critical that human interaction takes place frequently and calmly from the time the puppies are born, from simple, gentle handling to the mere presence of humans in the vicinity of the puppies, performing everyday tasks and activities. As the puppies grow older, socialization occurs more readily the more frequently they are exposed to other dogs, other people, and other situations. Dogs who are well socialized from birth, with both dogs and other species (especially people), are much less likely to be aggressive or to suffer from fear-biting.

See also


  • Chinoy, Ely (1961) Society: An Introduction to Sociology, New York: Random House.
  • Clausen, John A. (ed.) (1968) Socialization and Society, Boston: Little Brown and Company.
  • Johnson, Harry M. (1961) Sociology: A Systematic Introduction, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
  • McQuail, Dennis (2005) McQuail’s Mass Communication Theory: Fifth Edition, London: Sage.
  • Parsons, Talcott and Bales, Robert (1956) Family, Socialization and Interaction Process, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
  • White, Graham (1977) Socialisation, London: Longman.
  • Michael Paul Rhode, Smithsonian Dep. of Anthropology
  • Bogard, Kimber. "Citizenship attitudes and allegiances in diverse youth." Cultural Diversity and Ethnic minority Psychology14(4)(2008): 286-296.
  • Mehan, Hugh. "Sociological Foundations Supporting the Study of Cultural Diversity." 1991. National Center for Research on Cultural Diversity and Second Language Learning.
  • Robert Feldman, Ph.D. at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Child Development Third Edition

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