What is Socialization?

In Sociology, the concept of socialization is critical. But, “What is socialization?” The authors of one text book define socialization as “a learning process, one that involves development or changes in the individual’s sense of self”, and this is exactly true. Socialization is a learning process. When your parents teach you how to use a toilet or behave politely, when your teachers teach you about your country’s history, when a priest teaches you to behave a certain way (i.e. listen to God’s commandments), you are being socialized. When you are being socialized, you are taking part (willingly or unwillingly) in a learning process.

Now, this definition is fine as far as it goes; unfortunately though, it does not really capture the full importance and significance of socialization, nor does it cover the broad sense of the meaning. Yes, socialization is a learning process and yes we develop a “sense of self” as we are socialized, but socialization is much more than that. If socialization was just a learning process, we could call it education and be done with it. If socialization was only about our “sense of self” we could leave with psychologists and not be bothered ourselves. But socialization is more than just education and it impacts more than just your sense of self. The socialization process you go through is significant and sophisticated and any definition of it should capture that significance.

In order to understand the significance of the socialization process, the first thing you have to understand is that socialization is not a political, socially, or even spiritually neutral process. That is, the things you are a taught and the ways you are to behave are not random. When you are born and the socialization process begins, it is not just about you and your family, it is about the social and political order within which you are born into. In other words, socialization teaches you the social order. And note, it is not voluntary. When the socialization process begins, you don’t have a choice. Whatever society you are born into, whatever the sex of the body you happen to inhabit, you are given no choice about what you will learn. Immediately after you are born, and long before you have the intellectual capacity to understand what it is that is happening to you, the process of imposing the social order begins.

Now, the idea that socialization is about imposing the social order may be a bit uncomfortable to some. Some  might want to believe that you are the person you are based totally on some essentialized expression of your inner being or even soul, but that’s not true. You may have an inner identity, and you may have a soul, but whatever these things are, are refracted through the socialization that you receive. This refraction process impacts, influences, and shapes how you express in and understand the world.

If you resist this notion, if you think that your society is somehow “free” and socialization isn’t imposed, think about a country like Cuba. All of us in the so called free world can agree, in a country like Cuba, the socialization process involves teaching the kids about Communism. In Cuba, socialization involves impressing the social order, which is a communist order, on each new generation. In Cuba kids are taught about the superiority of communism, the benefits of communism, and the problems caused by Capitalism. Most westerners, even if they know nothing about it, would hardly call the Cuban socialization process neutral, and would hardly disagree with the notion that the communist social order is imposed via the socialization process. There is nothing particularly challenging about this. The only issue is that we in the West might like to think that we aren’t socialized in the same fashion. We live in a “free” country after all and we are capable of making choices that Cuban’s have, historically, been unable to make. Our socialization is different, we might like to think. We are “free,” we like to think. But really, it is not, and we are not. Just like Cuban’s are socialized into a communist social order, we in the West are also socialized into a Capitalist social order. Just like Cuban children, from the very moment we are born we are socialized into that order. And note, just like in Cuba, we have no choice. In our society everything from our gender to our education, to our work choices to the way we buy our food and save our money is framed within a capitalist social order. This we cannot deny.

If we accept that socialization is about imposing upon you the social order then we can refine our definition of socialization and say that socialization is the process by which the social order is involuntarily and (if necessary) coercively transferred onto a person, beginning as a newborn baby.

Socialization is the process by which the social order is involuntarily and (if necessary) coercively transferred onto a person, beginning as a newborn baby

If you think about it, that’s big and it takes the definition of socialization way beyond the notion of your own sense of self. Saying that socialization is about imposing the social order makes it something that is much more interesting to sociologists, and much more defining of who you are. Just how defining it is hard to communicate in an introduction like this, because few of us are trained to actually see the process. We don’t see just how defining it is because a) we live in it like a fish in a bowl lives in water and b) few (besides sociologists) ever speak explicitly or critically about the socialization process. Your parents don’t tell you they are imposing the social order on you, probably because they don’t realize they are doing it. Teachers don’t speak explicitly about their job of imposing the social order, even if they are aware of it, because if they did parents might object. Similarly, governments, who tell teachers what they are to teach in school, don’t admit it either, because if they did then you’d question the curriculum more than you do. It is just not something that we talk openly about. Like God handing down the ten commandments to Moses, we are expected to accept our socialization, internalize it, and find some way to fit in. In this context, socialization becomes the process of moulding and forming us into shapes suitable and acceptable to society. For a sociologist like me, socialization is the manufacturing process and we are the mass produced manikins. We are well designed, sufficiently shaped, appropriately manicured, parts. We are a product of the socialization process and we are fitted into the social/productive machine just like any part in any machine would be. We are a product of a process; we are a part in a machine. What part we play, and how our part is shaped, is entirely dependent on the socialization process. If you were raised in Cuba, or Iran, or Russia, or even France, you would be shaped entirely differently and your “identity” would be different as a result.

Since this may be your first introduction to sociology, you may have a hard time accepting the idea that you are shaped and moulded by a process of socialization in the same way a product is shaped and moulded. We are taught from birth that we have our own personalities with individual likes and dislikes. We are taught that we are unique expressions in the world, that we are a unique constellation of individual genetics, or an expression of some inner “I” that is me (a soul if you like). We like to think this, so the notion that we are shaped and moulded may be anathema to our sense of self. Unfortunately, it is true. We are shaped by the socialization process and while we remain uncritical and unaware, who we are is entirely dependent on what we’ve been taught as part of the socialization process you went through.

Here is how it works.

The process of imposing the social order starts at birth. Socialization is initiated when Agents of Socialization, like the doctors, the nurses, and your parents, quickly divide you, the baby, into the two broad categories of human being, “male” and “female.” The groups are immediately distinguished from each other and assigned different roles and a different status. Members of one group, the girls, are given pink blankets; members of the other group, the boys, are given blue blankets. Thus you are immediately assigned to two specific social groupings; thus does your socialization begin.

The socialization process starts at birth, in the hospital, but it continues in the home where parents become responsible for training the children in the ways of their gender (first) and (later) social class. Following the initial segregation (which continues on throughout the lifespan of the individual), the “boy” and the “girl” group are treated differently, and different expectations are layered upon them. Parents are a powerful force for gender socialization; they generally talk to, treat, and even cuddle their children differently based on gender. Not only that, they train them to do different things based solely on their assigned gender. Boys are traditionally trained to be “breadwinners” while girls are primed for their reproductive and domestic roles. As documented over and over and again by sociologists, each group has a markedly different life path and although in recent decades there has been a “loosening” of the socialized gender roles (nowadays we see individuals stepping outside of their socialized roles, stay at home dads, moms in the workforce, etc.), nevertheless, the majority of women still bear children and are primarily responsible for raising them, while the vast majority of men spend their pre-retirement life time in productive labour. It is interesting, however, that even when women go out into the workforce, they are often also expected to be the primary caregivers for the children as well. Many women thus work what sociologists call a double day (one work-day at their job, one work-day at their home) in order to meet their financial, maternal, and marital obligations. Socialization is the manufacturing process and we are the mass produced manikins. We are well designed, sufficiently shaped, appropriately manicured, parts.

Be that as it may, gender is not the only thing that is socialized (i.e. imposed) on us by our parents. Parents also begin the process of labour force socialization and, subsequently, reinforce the efforts of the school system to fit people into their appropriate work-place boxes. Like there is differential gender socialization, there is also differential class socialization. For example, working-class children are taught the value of punctuality and industriousness as well as the routines of the labour force. Middle class individuals are taught the value of long work hours and competitive excellence. In the middle-class area where I live, parents place much emphasis on training their kids to work from morning until night. They put them in multiple activities throughout the week, encourage constant study, and expose them to activities that reward competition and success while punishing those who are lazy or who lose. By contrast, upper class individuals are taught different things. They are taught creativity, free thinking, and a powerful ethic of superiority over the masses).

As noted, parents are not the only ones to impose a labour-force order on their children. At approximately the age of five, children enter schools where teachers begin a twelve-step process of education (i.e., they begin enforcing the social order). Once again, the type of socialization each child receives depends in large measure on his or her social class. Jean Anyon’s study “Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work,”[1] clearly documents differential socialization. Training for working-class, middle-class, and elite kids is primarily designed to fit them into their respective productive roles (factory workers, middle-class information workers and managers, elite CEOs) that their “birth place” leads them to. Working class children are aimed at factories and manual labor and the education they get in school reflects this. Working class children are not taught to think! They are taught to follow rules and procedures and little else. As Anyon writes:

The procedure is usually mechanical, involving rote behavior and very little decision making or choice. The teachers rarely explain why the work is being assigned, how it might connect to other assignments, or what the idea is that lies behind the procedure or gives it coherence and perhaps meaning or significance. Available textbooks are not always used, and the teachers often prepare their own dittos or put work examples on the board. Most of the rules regarding work are designations of what the children are to do; the rules are steps to follow. These steps are told to the children by the teachers and are often written on the board. The children are usually told to copy the steps as notes. These notes are to be studied. Work is often evaluated not according to whether it is right or wrong but according to whether the children followed the right steps. [2]

By contrast, children from elite families are aimed at positions of power and corporate responsibility. They are trained to be the “leaders” and decision makers and their education reflects exactly their future position in the labour force. As Anyon writes,

In the executive elite school, work is developing one’s analytical intellectual powers. Children are continually asked to reason through a problem, to produce intellectual products that are both logically sound and of top academic quality. A primary goal of thought is to conceptualize rules by which elements may fit together in systems and then to apply these rules in solving a problem. Schoolwork helps one to achieve, to excel, to prepare for life….While right answers are important in math, they are not ‘given’ by the book or by the teacher but may be challenged by the children. Going over some problems in late September the teacher says, ‘Raise your hand if you do not agree.’ A child says, “I don’t agree with sixty-four.” The teacher responds, ‘OK, there’s a question about sixty-four. [to class] Please check it. Owen, they’re disagreeing with you. Kristen, they’re checking yours.’ The teacher emphasized this repeatedly during September and October with statements like ‘Don’t be afraid to say you disagree. In the last [math] class, somebody disagreed, and they were right. Before you disagree, check yours, and if you still think we’re wrong, then we’ll check it out.’ By Thanksgiving, the children did not often speak in terms of right and wrong math problems but of whether they agreed with the answer that had been given.”

In sharp contrast to the type of training working class kids get, elite children are taught to think their own thoughts, express their own opinions, and to even be comfortable disagreeing with each other and the authority figure in the room. Elite kids are trained to be leaders and executives from the day they step into the classroom, while the working class kids are intellectually oppressed, even dumbed down so that they will comfortably, and without resistance and objection, fit into the productive roles their social class affords them.

The differential training/socialization that the different social classes get is called the Hidden Curriculum. The curriculum is called hidden because most people are unaware it is there, and those that are aware won’t admit that it is. The curriculum is hidden from students, parents, and teachers primarily because if wasn’t, people would object. No parent is going to willingly agree to have their children dumbed down just so they can fit into the productive system of society, and few teachers would willingly oppress the children they teach just to fit them into a factory mold. It also follows that the children themselves would object as well if they knew what is was the teachers were doing. Of course, they wouldn’t object as children because children do not have the intellectual capacity to understand what is happening to them, but as adults looking back I can see that people might be a little pissed. I went to a working class school for example and I am angry when I think how my ability to think and be creative was suppressed at an early age. Fortunately, I did overcome this repression; but not everybody does. Many working class children suffer under the yoke of their repressive education for an entire lifetime without ever realizing they have been oppressed, and without ever taking the steps to develop latent potentialities repressed by their childhood training.

Notably, at school, teachers do not do it alone; after a certain age, the children themselves begin to enforce the social order, i.e. socialize each other! Around the age of five or six, children internalize and begin enforcing gender and class expectations by, for example, tittering, laughing, and sanctioning those individuals who step out of their narrow and prescriptive gender and class boxes, or by telling on their peers when their peers don’t follow the rules.

The socialization process at school goes on for twelve or so years, after which the successful socialization of the individual is marked by a graduation ritual in which the newly minted “members of society” pass into the adult world where they will take on their productive roles (in the case of men) or reproductive roles (in the case of women). But it is not over yet. After graduation from High School, the socialization process continues, taken over by the media and by specific “organizations of socialization” like the Freemasons, the local chapter of the Better Business Bureau, trade unions, churches, Universities, or whatever. These organizations impose and reinforce specific world views and specific patterns of behaviour and thought on the adult population. The media is a fascinating example of this. Sociologists who study mass media tell us that the media is a powerful agent of socialization, and that is certainly true. The media socializes us just like the Church, our schools, and our parents. If you doubt this, consider modern media liturgies like Star Wars. Star wars is really nothing more than a secular version of the Catholic story of good versus level, with Disney like production values.

Although the details of the socialization process are interesting, the important point for us is that socialization guarantees the replication of the social order from generation to generation. Each new baby that enters society is taught, by the agents of socialization, how to think, act, and behave in accordance with the expectations (gender, social class) of the society within which it lives.

At this point I’d like to revisit the definition of socialization that I provided earlier. Remember, I said that socialization is the process by which the social order is involuntarily and (if necessary) coercively transferred onto a person, beginning as a newborn baby. You may have initially objected to the definition of socialization as involuntary, and you may have balked at the statement that values that support the productive systems of society are imposed, but in reality, socialization is involuntary, generally non-negotiable, and powerfully imposed. Nobody asks you whether you want to be a boy or a girl, whether you want to go to school, or learn math or reading or writing, or whether or not you want to labour away for forty years in a factory or office, bear children, or whatever. It is merely expected of you and you are punished and sanctioned if you do not comply. They make you into a boy or a girl and they shape you so you fit the social class mold you were born into. They make you go to school and learn what the government thinks you should learn;[3] if you choose not to, socialization is enforced. Parents cannot simply keep their children out of school. If they do, truancy laws will be enforced. Similarly, a boy or girl who does not conform to gender expectations will be ridiculed, taunted, and, as is demonstrated in the film Two Spirits, sometimes beaten to death;[4] anyone who steps outside social expectations will become the victim of ascending social sanctions (i.e., the social sanctions will become more severe the longer the violations occur, or the more serious they are). This is the way it is.

A question that we might ask at this point is whether the imposition of role, identity, and culture (i.e. the imposition of social order) is good or bad. That depends on your perspective (which might depend in turn on how well socialized you are). Sigmund Freud, who based his psychology on the premise that society engages in a sophisticated process of repression of primitive and aggressive sexual and instinctual energies would say, “Yes, it is good.” He would say that if society did not repress your instincts, if it did not channel your primitive and instinctual energies (your Id, as he called it) into socially acceptable outlets, all hell and chaos would break loose.[5] His is a common perception based on a notion of Darwinian ascent from savagery. The idea that an underlying human irrationality, an idea that has no scientific credibility, survived this ascent is implicit in this perception. That is, Freud assumes that we (and by we I mean human beings) are, under our social façade, primitive, sexual lunatics. According to Freud, without repressive and controlling factor of socialization, our primitive instincts would boil to the surface and this would quickly lead to anarchy and chaos. Thus Freud justifies repressive socialization.Anyone who steps outside social expectations will become the victim of ascending social sanctions

Of course, many people wouldn’t think about socialization in these terms, or wouldn’t go so far as to justify repressive socialization by reference to questionable theories of instinctual madness. Freud had a peculiarly negative view of human nature, a view that is increasingly challenged by social research showing that even infants have highly evolved ethical sensibility (see for example the CBC Documentary, Born to be Good). Still, most people, except maybe the anarchists[6] (and interestingly even they would have to socialize their children) would come down in favour of some form of socialization process. The reproduction of culture, the passing on of knowledge, even our collective survival depends on the generation-to-generation reproduction of society. Socialization is what makes the world go around.[7] Babies are born into this world totally helpless and if we didn’t pass on culture to them, they’d die and eventually society would wink out of existence. So even putting aside Freud’s questionable assumptions of human nature, we still need a socialization process. If we didn’t socialize and train our children, if we didn’t pass on knowledge and wisdom of older generations, we’d have to rebuild everything anew every generation. If you had to do that, only the simplest of social and physical orders would be possible. So there is definitely an argument to be made in favour of the socialization process. Socialization is quite literally the core process that enables us, as humans, to be humans.

Nevertheless, despite our need of a socialization process, we must not forget that the social order does not exist sui generis, that it emerges out of the actions of individuals, that it is imposed, that we are not given a choice, that it is not always operated with the best of intentions (e.g. social class socialization primarily benefits the higher social classes because it trains compliant workers), that it is often quiet repressive, and that there may be other ways of doings things outside of what is commonly accepted as “normal” social practice. In other words, we do have a right to question the social order, we do have a right to question society’s expectations, and we do have a right to alter and change socialization practices. And, it would seem, more and more people are doing that. Ever since the 1960s’, each new generation has questioned and whittled away at box provided. The society we live in now is nowhere near as rigid and authoritarian as it once was, at least in North American and western European culture. Change is possible, perhaps even probable.[8]

We do have a right to question the social order, we do have a right to question society’s expectations, and we do have a right to alter and change socialization practices.To summarize, socialization is the process by which the social order is involuntarily and (if necessary) coercively transferred onto a person, beginning as a newborn baby. It is the process by which the rules and expectations, the identities and behaviours that are seen as acceptable to society, are transferred from generation to generation. Socialization helps maintain the social order, and it ensures the reproduction of society. In the reproduction of society, socialization is a necessary process. though we should remember that it is possible (and often even desirable) to question it, and that we can change it if we like.

In the final analysis, and as pointed out in the section on the nature of Sociology, our actions create and re-create society. The socialization process is a perfect example of this because it is in the actions of the agents of socialization (parents, the media, our schools, our peer groups, even ourselves) that the social world is re-created from generation to generation. As we can see, the process of socialization is the core process by which society is re-created, and, if we wish to change society and ourselves, one of the first places we start is with the socialization process itself.


[1] Jean Anyon. “Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work,”Journal of Education, Vol. 162, no. 1, (Fall 1980)

[2] Jean Anyon. “Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work,”Journal of Education, Vol. 162, no. 1, (Fall 1980)

[3] In Canada, curriculum is set and enforced at the provincial government level.

[4] See Two Spirits. http://www.sociology.org/film/two-spirits/

[5] Sigmund Freud. Civilization and Its Discontents. Translated by Joan Riviere. (London: Hogarth Press, 1963).

[6] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anarchism

[7] We might also say that socialization is what makes the world order go around.

[8] Keep in mind however, even though we (and by “we” I mean Canadians) regularly question cultural programming and the imposition of social order, not all countries share this limited freedom. And even Western societies continue to restrict personal actions. Also, don’t forget, even within the general freedom we have to question, our gender and social class are still imposed. You may choose not to fit in if you like, but powerful sanctions are leveled against those who do not “fit in” the box selected for them at birth.

Mike Sosteric (Dr. S.)

Just another loud mouth sociology professor, teaching sociology courses. Check me out here at the Socjourn, over there at The Conversation and at academia.edu.

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