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What does socialization do for us?

Socialization is the complex, interactive process, reciprocal and negotiated, through which the individual acquires cultural elements that shape self and personality.

Through socialization, each individual develops a sense or perception of self and the capacity for independent thought and action. Durkheim (1965) hypothesized that the individual's basic categories of thought are products of socialization. The 'framework of intelligence' takes the form of society. Socialization ensures both the continuity of society across generations and the development of the individual through submission to social regulation. While his theory of the social origin of mind has its critics (Bergeson, 2004), the impact on the study of socialization has been profound.

In line with Durkheim's model, Vygotsky's (1978) theory of social development posited that human consciousness is the end product of socialization. "Every function in the child's cultural development appears twice: first on the social level, and later, on the individual level; first between people...and then inside the child... This applies equally to voluntary attention, to logical memory, and to the formation of concepts. All the higher functions originate as actual relationships between individuals" (p. 57).

These theoretical perspectives offer an impressive account of the things that socialization does for us. The following is a brief discussion of the contributions socialization makes to our lives and to society throughout the life course, within relevant contexts and through agents of the socialization process. We conclude with several practical and ethical issues for the meaning and potential of successful socialization.

What are the Benefits of Socialization?

The benefits of socialization generally are tied to both a cultural and an individual perspective. Ensuring the continuity of a viable society over time, together with all its cultural ethos, forms and structures, constitutes one set of functions served by socialization's process and outcomes. Anthropologists, as well as sociologists, provide theory and research relevant to the benefits of socialization in this sphere. Successful socialization is thought to yield an orderly, well-run society, a culture that is civil and prosperous.

Psychologists, in addition to sociologists, have explored the benefits of socialization for the individual. Through this acquisitive process, the individual comes to assimilate and internalize the norms, values, beliefs and attitudes, the goals and motivational factors, the behavior patterns and the language of the culture(s) relevant to that individual. In so doing, the individual's personality and self-concept are shaped. A sense of belonging to the socializing group is engendered through this process. From a structural-functionalist perspective, individuals become group members through internalizing the social roles and status hierarchies of the group (Brim, 1966).

From the point of view of symbolic interaction, the core benefit of socialization is the development of self-concept and identity in the context of close, reciprocal relationships, enabled by a common language. Mead (1934) described the outcome of socialization as a dynamic relationship between society and the individual, akin to two sides of the same coin.

The internalization of a role, or identity, within the group enables the individual to see self from the perspective of other group members, thus providing a basis for consciousness of self. Role identities, born through socialization, provide core information for the construction of realities and definition of situations. They also contain motivational properties. Internalizing components of an identity or role, such as student, brother or soldier, motivates the individual to behave in accordance with values and norms implicit in that identity (Stryker, 1980). Both self and society rely on the socialization process to generate identities through which realities can be created and negotiated.

Throughout the life course, individuals are subject to important socializing experiences. Primary socialization deals with inculcating the basic cultural elements of language, norms and values, attitudes and beliefs, patterns of behavior and goals that are appropriate to the individual's age and gender. The transmission of identity-appropriate knowledge and skills is the work of secondary socialization. The agents of socialization include parents and siblings, teachers and peers, friends and colleagues, and various forms of media and technology.

The socialization process is crucial particularly in times of change. Transitions from infancy to childhood to adolescence and adulthood are accompanied by socialization processes that are designed to provide the individual with identities and the tools to perform 'as expected' within those roles. Adults experience the socialization process through shifts in jobs, family structure, personal relationships, interests and associations.

As the life span has increased, the number of transitions within adult life has grown. Identifying oneself as retired, widowed, alone, physically infirm or psychologically impaired constitutes a difficult self-concept for an increasing number of older individuals; indeed, these identities may challenge the core sense of belonging to any relevant social group.

In a sense, this issue highlights the function of cultural values in the socialization process. If society fails to value its older members, perhaps because they can no longer be relied upon for the continuity of the culture, then the socialization mechanisms may not be in place to equip these individuals for later life roles.


Throughout this discussion of the socialization process, the focus has been on contributions this process has made, is making and will make, in relation to our individual lives and cultures; i.e., what socialization does for us. These benefits include the core competencies, skills and knowledge required to function well, by society's standards, within the myriad identities and roles encountered during the life course.

This essay concludes with questions. What are the measures by which success or failure of this process is gauged? What are the desired outcomes? How well do these contributions work for the individual and for society, throughout the life course? What does socialization do to us, as well as for us?

Maintenance of the status quo appears to be the dominant cultural goal for the socialization process. The individual must do more than conform and comply to meet the standards for successful socialization. Simply adapting may not lead to the necessary commitment to and identification with a role. One must assimilate and internalize the relevant group standards, beliefs, attitudes, goals, behavioral sanctions, et cetera, in order to replicate Mead's (1934) two-sided coin analogy: self and society as reflections of one another. Therefore, measures of a successful socialization process and outcomes for the individual include the translation of social control into self-control.

Karl Mannheim (1936) posited that a dominant generation (e.g., parents) puts forward ideological thought systems to perpetuate their group interests across generations. Non-dominant generational groups (e.g., progeny) craft utopian thought systems to further their separate interests and beg a revolution. Would this be considered a failure of the socialization process? Should 'resocialization' (e.g., Lifton, 1963) be the preferred option for dealing with disruption; is there a primacy of doctrine over person?

These issues suggest a potential narrowing of personal and cultural freedom as a function of the socialization process.

The process and measures of successful socialization are complicated further by rapid social and cultural change, shifting family structure and the dynamics of this postmodern civilization. Families today are more likely to be single-parent/working parents, reliant on alternative childcare options, or families in which young children are primary caregivers. These factors are seen as threats to, or, at best, limiting conditions for the prospect of successful socialization. The trend toward more home schooling has generated passionate debate regarding the restricted socialization opportunities available to these children (e.g., Stevens, 2001).

The narrowing of cultural diversity and individual freedom of choice may be seen through an adaptation of George Ritzer's (2002) analysis. The McDonaldization of socialization has added 'cathedrals of consumption' (such as mega-malls and the Internet) to the cross-cultural contexts in which the process operates, while limiting potential outcomes through rationalization and its negative effects (e.g., deskilling).

In spite of the flux in structures on which socialization depends, children, adolescents and adults continue to weather life transitions and to function as members of groups and society. This perseverance attests to the robustness of the socialization process. In the end, it is difficult to deny the significance of a process that is credited for the gift of consciousness, itself.


Bergeson, A.J. (2004). Durkheim's theory of mental categories: A review of the evidence. Annual Review of Sociology, 30(1), pp. 395-408.
Brim, O.G., Jr. (1966). Socialization through the life cycle. In O.G. Brim, Jr., and S. Wheeler, eds., Socialization after Childhood: Two Essays. New York: Wiley.
Durkheim, E. (1965). The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. New York: Free Press.
Lifton, R.J. (1963). Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of Brainwashing in China. New York: Norton.
Mannheim, K. (1936). Ideology and Utopia: An Introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Mead, G.H. (1934). Mind, Self, and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Stevens, M.L. (2001). Kingdom of Children: Culture and Controversy in the Homeschooling Movement. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Stryker, S. (1980). Symbolic Interactionism: A Social Structural Version. Menlo Park, CA: Benjamin/Cummings.
Ritzer, G. (2002). McDonaldization: The Reader. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.
Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.