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Agents of Socialization

Module by: OpenStax College. E-mail the author

Summary:

  • Learn the roles of families and peer groups in socialization
  • Understand how we are socialized through formal institutions like schools, workplaces, and the government

Socialization helps people learn to function successfully in their social worlds. How does the process of socialization occur? How do we learn to use the objects of our society’s material culture? How do we come to adopt the beliefs, values, and norms that represent its nonmaterial culture? This learning takes place through interaction with various agents of socialization, like peer groups and families, plus both formal and informal social institutions.

Social Group Agents

Social groups often provide the first experiences of socialization. Families, and later peer groups, communicate expectations and reinforce norms. People first learn to use the tangible objects of material culture in these settings, as well as being introduced to the beliefs and values of society.

Family

Family is the first agent of socialization. Mothers and fathers, siblings and grandparents, plus members of an extended family, all teach a child what he or she needs to know. For example, they show the child how to use objects (such as clothes, computers, eating utensils, books, bikes); how to relate to others (some as “family,” others as “friends,” still others as “strangers” or “teachers” or “neighbors”); and how the world works (what is “real” and what is “imagined”). As you are aware, either from your own experience as a child or your role in helping to raise one, socialization involves teaching and learning about an unending array of objects and ideas.

It is important to keep in mind, however, that families do not socialize children in a vacuum. Many social factors impact how a family raises its children. For example, we can use sociological imagination to recognize that individual behaviors are affected by the historical period in which they take place. Sixty years ago, it would not have been considered especially strict for a father to hit his son with a wooden spoon or a belt if he misbehaved, but today that same action might be considered child abuse.

Sociologists recognize that race, social class, religion, and other societal factors play an important role in socialization. For example, poor families usually emphasize obedience and conformity when raising their children, while wealthy families emphasize judgment and creativity (National Opinion Research Center 2008).This may be because working-class parents have less education and more repetitive-task jobs for which the ability to follow rules and to conform helps. Wealthy parents tend to have better educations and often work in managerial positions or in careers that require creative problem solving, so they teach their children behaviors that would be beneficial in these positions. This means that children are effectively socialized and raised to take the types of jobs that their parents already have, thus reproducing the class system (Kohn 1977). Likewise, children are socialized to abide by gender norms, perceptions of race, and class-related behaviors.

In Sweden, for instance, stay-at-home fathers are an accepted part of the social landscape. A government policy provides subsidized time off work—480 days for families with newborns—with the option of the paid leave being shared between both mothers and fathers. As one stay-at-home dad says, being home to take care of his baby son “is a real fatherly thing to do. I think that’s very masculine” (Associated Press 2011). How do America’s policies—and our society’s expected gender roles—compare? How will Swedish children raised this way be socialized to parental gender norms? How might that be different from parental gender norms in the United States?

Figure 1: The socialized roles of dads (and moms) vary by society. (Photo courtesy of Nate Grigg/flickr)
A man and a baby.

Peer Groups

A peer group is made up of people who are similar in age and social status and who share interests. Peer group socialization begins in the earliest years, such as when kids on a playground teach younger children the norms about taking turns or the rules of a game or how to shoot a basket. As children grow into teenagers, this process continues. Peer groups are important to adolescents in a new way, as they begin to develop an identity separate from their parents and exert independence. Additionally, peer groups provide their own opportunities for socialization since kids usually engage in different types of activities with their peers than they do with their families. Peer groups provide adolescents’ first major socialization experience outside the realm of their families. Interestingly, studies have shown that although friendships rank high in adolescents’ priorities, this is balanced by parental influence.

Institutional Agents

The social institutions of our culture also inform our socialization. Formal institutions—like schools, workplaces, and the government—teach people how to behave in and navigate these systems. Other institutions, like the media, contribute to socialization by inundating us with messages about norms and expectations.

School

Most American children spend about seven hours a day, 180 days a year, in school, which makes it hard to deny the importance school has on their socialization (U.S. Department of Education 2004). Students are not only in school to study math, reading, science, and other subjects—the manifest function of this system. Schools also serve a latent function in society by socializing children into behaviors like teamwork, following a schedule, and using textbooks.

Figure 2: These kindergarteners aren’t just learning to read and write, they are being socialized to norms like keeping their hands to themselves, standing in line, and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. (Photo courtesy of Bonner Springs Library/flickr)
A female teacher is shown sitting in a chair and reading a picture book to a group of children sitting in front of her on the floor.

School and classroom rituals, led by teachers serving as role models and leaders, regularly reinforce what society expects from children. Sociologists describe this aspect of schools as the hidden curriculum, the informal teaching done by schools.

For example, in the United States, schools have built a sense of competition into the way grades are awarded and the way teachers evaluate students (Bowles and Gintis 1976). When children participate in a relay race or a math contest, they learn that there are winners and losers in society. When children are required to work together on a project, they practice teamwork with other people in cooperative situations. The hidden curriculum prepares children for the adult world. Children learn how to deal with bureaucracy, rules, expectations, waiting their turn, and sitting still for hours during the day. Schools in different cultures socialize children differently in order to prepare them to function well in those cultures. The latent functions of teamwork and dealing with bureaucracy are features of American culture.

Schools also socialize children by teaching them about citizenship and national pride. In the United States, children are taught to say the Pledge of Allegiance. Most districts require classes about U.S. history and geography. As academic understanding of history evolves, textbooks in the United States have been scrutinized and revised to update attitudes toward other cultures as well as perspectives on historical events; thus, children are socialized to a different national or world history than earlier textbooks may have done. For example, information about the mistreatment of African Americans and Native American Indians more accurately reflects those events than in textbooks of the past.

Controversial Textbooks:

On August 13, 2001, 20 South Korean men gathered in Seoul. Each chopped off one of his own fingers because of textbooks. These men took drastic measures to protest eight middle school textbooks approved by Tokyo for use in Japanese middle schools. According to the Korean government (and other East Asian nations), the textbooks glossed over negative events in Japan’s history at the expense of other Asian countries.

In the early 1900s, Japan was one of Asia’s more aggressive nations. Korea was held as a colony by the Japanese between 1910 and 1945. Today, Koreans argue that the Japanese are whitewashing that colonial history through these textbooks. One major criticism is that they do not mention that, during World War II, the Japanese forced Korean women into sexual slavery. The textbooks describe the women as having been “drafted” to work, a euphemism that downplays the brutality of what actually occurred. Some Japanese textbooks dismiss an important Korean independence demonstration in 1919 as a “riot.” In reality, Japanese soldiers attacked peaceful demonstrators, leaving roughly 6,000 dead and 15,000 wounded (Crampton 2002).

Although it may seem extreme that people are so enraged about how events are described in a textbook that they would resort to dismemberment, the protest affirms that textbooks are a significant tool of socialization in state-run education systems.

The Workplace

Just as children spend much of their day at school, many American adults at some point invest a significant amount of time at a place of employment. Although socialized into their culture since birth, workers require new socialization into a workplace, both in terms of material culture (such as how to operate the copy machine) and nonmaterial culture (such as whether it’s okay to speak directly to the boss or how the refrigerator is shared).

Different jobs require different types of socialization. In the past, many people worked a single job until retirement. Today, the trend is to switch jobs at least once a decade. Between the ages of 18 and 44, the average baby boomer of the younger set held 11 different jobs (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2010). This means that people must become socialized to, and socialized by, a variety of work environments.

Religion

While some religions may tend toward being an informal institution, this section focuses on practices related to formal institutions. Religion is an important avenue of socialization for many people. The United States is full of synagogues, temples, churches, mosques, and similar religious communities where people gather to worship and learn. Like other institutions, these places teach participants how to interact with the religion’s material culture (like a mezuzah, a prayer rug, or a communion wafer). For some people, important ceremonies related to family structure—like marriage and birth—are connected to religious celebrations. Many of these institutions uphold gender norms and contribute to their enforcement through socialization. From ceremonial rites of passage that reinforce the family unit, to power dynamics which reinforce gender roles, religion fosters a shared set of socialized values that are passed on through society.

Government

Although we do not think about it, many of the rites of passage people go through today are based on age norms established by the government. To be defined as an “adult” usually means being 18 years old, the age at which a person becomes legally responsible for themselves. And 65 is the start of “old age” since most people become eligible for senior benefits at that point.

Each time we embark on one of these new categories—senior, adult, taxpayer—we must be socialized into this new role. Seniors must learn the ropes of Medicare, Social Security benefits, and getting a senior discount where they shop. When American males turn 18, they must register with the Selective Service System within 30 days to be entered into a database for possible military service. These government dictates mark the points at which we require socialization into a new category.

Mass Media

Mass media refers to the distribution of impersonal information to a wide audience, such as what happens via television, newspapers, radio, and the Internet. With the average person spending over four hours a day in front of the TV (and children averaging even more screen time), media greatly influences social norms (Roberts, Foehr, and Rideout 2005). People learn about objects of material culture (like new technology and transportation options), as well as nonmaterial culture—what is true (beliefs), what is important (values), and what is expected (norms).

Girls and Movies:

Figure 3: Some people are concerned about the way girls today are socialized into a “princess culture.” (Photo courtesy of Emily Stanchfield/flickr)
Pink baby clothes and other baby shower gifts are shown here.

Pixar is one of the largest producers of children’s movies in the world and has released large box office draws, such as Toy Story, Cars, The Incredibles, and Up. What Pixar has never before produced is a movie with a female lead role. This will change with Pixar’s newest movie Brave, which is due out in 2012. Before Brave, women in Pixar served as supporting characters and love interests. In Up, for example, the only human female character dies within the first 10 minutes of the film. For the millions of girls watching Pixar films, there are few strong characters or roles for them to relate to. If they do not see possible versions of themselves, they may come to view women as secondary to the lives of men.

The animated films of Pixar’s parent company, Disney, have many female lead roles. Disney is well known for films with female leads, such as Snow White, Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, and Mulan. Many of Disney’s movies star a female, and she is nearly always a princess figure. If she is not a princess to begin with, she typically ends the movie by marrying a prince or, in the case of Mulan, a military general. Although not all “princesses” in Disney movies play a passive role in their lives, they typically find themselves needing to be rescued by a man, and the happy ending they all search for includes marriage.

Alongside this prevalence of princesses, many parents are expressing concern about the culture of princesses that Disney has created. Peggy Orenstein addresses this problem in her popular book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter. Orenstein wonders why every little girl is expected to be a “princess” and why pink has become an all-consuming obsession for many young girls. Another mother wondered what she did wrong when her three-year-old daughter refused to do “non-princessy” things, including running and jumping. The effects of this princess culture can have negative consequences for girls throughout life. An early emphasis on beauty and sexiness can lead to eating disorders, low self-esteem, and risky sexual behavior among older girls.

What should we expect from Pixar’s new movie, the first starring a female character? Although Brave features a female lead, she is still a princess. Will this film offer any new type of role model for young girls? (O’Connor 2011; Barnes 2010; Rose 2011).

Summary

Our direct interactions with social groups, like families and peers, teach us how others expect us to behave. Likewise, a society’s formal and informal institutions socialize its population. Schools, workplaces, and the media communicate and reinforce cultural norms and values.

Section Quiz

Exercise 1

Why are wealthy parents more likely than poor parents to socialize their children toward creativity and problem solving?

  1. Wealthy parents are socializing their children toward the skills of white-collar employment.
  2. Wealthy parents are not concerned about their children rebelling against their rules.
  3. Wealthy parents never engage in repetitive tasks.
  4. Wealthy parents are more concerned with money than with a good education.

Answer

A

Exercise 2

How do schools prepare children to one day enter the workforce?

  1. With a standardized curriculum
  2. Through the hidden curriculum
  3. By socializing them in teamwork
  4. All of the above

Answer

D

Exercise 3

Which one of the following is not a way people are socialized by religion?

  1. People learn the material culture of their religion.
  2. Life stages and roles are connected to religious celebration.
  3. An individual’s personal internal experience of a divine being leads to their faith.
  4. Places of worship provide a space for shared group experiences.

Answer

C

Exercise 4

Which of the following is a manifest function of schools?

  1. Understanding when to speak up and when to be silent
  2. Learning to read and write
  3. Following a schedule
  4. Knowing locker room etiquette

Answer

B

Exercise 5

Which of the following is typically the earliest agent of socialization?

  1. School
  2. Family
  3. Mass media
  4. Workplace

Answer

B

Short Answer

Exercise 1

Do you think it is important that parents discuss gender roles with their young children, or is gender a topic better left for later? How do parents consider gender norms when buying their children books, movies, and toys? How do you believe they should consider it?

Exercise 2

Based on your observations, when are adolescents more likely to listen to their parents or to their peer groups when making decisions? What types of dilemmas lend themselves toward one social agent over another?

Further Research

Most societies expect parents to socialize children into gender norms. See the controversy surrounding one Canadian couple’s refusal to do so at http://openstaxcollege.org/l/Baby-Storm

References

Associated Press. 2011. “Swedish Dads Swap Work for Child Care.” The Gainesville Sun, October 23. Retrieved January 12, 2012 (http://www.gainesville.com/article/20111023/wire/111029834?template=printpicart).

Barnes, Brooks. “Pixar Removes Its First Female Director.” The New York Times, December 20. Retrieved August 2, 2011 (http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/10/20/first-woman-to-direct-a-pixar-film-is-instead-first-to-be-replaced/?ref=arts).

Bowles, Samuel and Herbert Gintis. 1976. Schooling in Capitalistic America: Educational Reforms and the Contradictions of Economic Life. New York: Basic Books.

Crampton, Thomas. 2002. “The Ongoing Battle over Japan’s Textbooks.” New York Times, February 12. Retrieved August 2, 2011 (http://www.nytimes.com/2002/02/12/news/12iht-rtexts_ed3_.html).

Kohn, Melvin L. 1977. Class and Conformity: A Study in Values. Homewood, IL: Dorsey Press.

National Opinion Research Center. 2007. General Social Surveys, 1972–2006: Cumulative Codebook. Chicago: National Opinion Research Center.

O’Connor, Lydia. 2011. “The Princess Effect: Are Girls Too ‘Tangled’ in Disney’s Fantasy?” Annenberg Digital News, January 26. Retrieved August 2, 2011 (http://www.neontommy.com/news/2011/01/princess-effect-are-girls-too-tangled-disneys-fantasy).

Roberts, Donald F., Ulla G. Foehr, and Victoria Rideout. 2005. “Parents, Children, and Media: A Kaiser Family Foundation Survey.” The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. Retrieved February 14, 2012 (http://www.kff.org/entmedia/upload/7638.pdf).

Rose, Steve. 2011. “Studio Ghibli: Leave the Boys Behind.” The Guardian, July 14. Retrieved August 2, 2011. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2011/jul/14/studio-ghibli-arrietty-heroines).

“South Koreans Sever Fingers in Anti-Japan Protest.” 2001. The Telegraph. Retrieved January 31, 2012 (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/1337272/South-Koreans-sever-fingers-in-anti-Japan-protest.html).

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 2010. “Number of Jobs Held, Labor Market Activity, and Earnings Growth Among the Youngest Baby Boomers.” September 10. Retrieved January 31, 2012 (http://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/nlsoy.pdf).

U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. 2004. “Average Length of School Year and Average Length of School Day, by Selected Characteristics: United States, 2003-04.” Private School Universe Survey (PSS). Retrieved July 30, 2011 (http://nces.ed.gov/surveys/pss/tables/table_2004_06.asp).

Glossary

hidden curriculum:
the informal teaching done in schools that socializes children to societal norms
peer group:
a group made up of people who are similar in age and social status and who share interests

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