Professor Marshall

LESSON 6: Socialization

Lesson 6

Target Competencies (Outcomes)

Explain various socialization processes

Articulate the importance of socialization to self and to society

You will demonstrate your competence by:

Completing the learning activities in this Learning Plan

Your performance will be successful when:

You can explain differences between psychological and sociological theories of self-development

You can explain theories which examine the process of moral development

You can articulate the importance of socialization both for individuals and society

You can compare and contrast the "nature-nurture debate"

You can list the primary agents of socialization

You can explain the importance of agents of socialization to the process of self-development

You can explain the life course approach to socialization

You can describe the importance of Goffman's contributions to the field of socialization theory

Learning Activities

1. If you have not yet done so, READ Chapter 5 of your text.

2. COMPLETE the lesson below.

Socialization and Social Theory

Socialization theory brings us to a disctinct MICRO level point-of-view about society. All of our socialization theory fall under the broader symbolic interaction umbrella. The area of socialization theory is the closest sociology comes to the field of psychology. Socialization defined is the process by which you learn how to become a functioning member of society. On the surface, this might seem easy. In fact, it is a very difficult thing to grasp--both for social theorists and for individuals in society. During the socialization process, you learn to internalize values, beliefs, norms and other macro and micro level aspects of society.

It is important to understand that, even while this area of study is very closely tied to psychology, the focus of the sociological study of socialization is still different than that of psychologists who study socialization proceesses:

Sociological versus Psychological POV

There are several primary agents of socialization. Depending on the book you're reading or the theorist you are studying this list varies however most sociologists today agree that the primary agents from the list below are family, peers, and media. While family has generally been recognized as the primary agents of socialization in contemporary American society, peer groups and media influences are gaining ground. This may be because of the influence of the structure of society which is changing with regard to the workplace (which is often also cited as a primary agent of socialization). In our recent past, we have generally had to only rely on one parent working full-time in the workforce. However, today in American society, it is increasingly difficult for only one parent to work full time and we see that mostly both parents in the household now work full time. In the past, the parental influence on children was greater because parents had more time to spend at home with their children. Today, parents are stressed and tired after getting home from work, and children are tasked to the max with afterschool activities. This makes the contact the parents have with children minimal. As a result of this reduced level of quality time, children are finding other outlets to fill the role of parents. Those two agents that have "stepped up to the plate" are peer groups and media. This is challenging for families: for parents as well as children. And the implications are dangerous for society. Do we really want to live in a society where children are getting significant amounts of information about how to properly socialize into the structure from their peers and from the media? Think about some of the things that you are peers have done. Think about your own personal media exposure. As these two agents gain power in the socialization process and parents take more of a backseat the structure of society will change. For now, parents (or the family) are the primary agents of socialization. However, we must consider as they lose ground other agents will step up to take their place.

Agents of Socialization

Nature and Nurture

Of course we must also look to the nature nurture debate to try to develop a robust explanation for behavior. Which one of these two is most important with regard to the development of proper socialization? The answer to that question is, for sociologists, that nurture drives the bus. Sociobiology is a relatively new field of study, which looks for connections to our biology with regard to behavior:

George Herbert Mead, elaborated on the process that Cooley began. He was interested in how we move beyond the self; in order to become fully functioning members of society we need to be able to recognize other people as being as important as our own selves. His stages of development include moving from eye or me to understandings of significant others, reference groups, and the generalized other:

Mead's Theory of Self

 Jean Piaget also helps us to understand the socialization process. His approach is a four stage process:

Along with Cooley, Mead, and Piaget we also have Erickson. Erickson proposed eight stages in the process of development. At each of these stages Erickson theorized that some sort of psychosocial crisis would occur. How the individual resolve this crisis at each stage would impact the socialization process:

Piaget's Stages of Self

Sociology and Socialization

Along with these three theorists from the field of psychology, we have some more recent additions in socialization theory from the field of sociology: Lawrence Kohlberg and Carol Gilligan. HERE is a brief outline of the similarities and differences of these two theories.

Gilligan's Morality Model

Lawrence Kohlberg theorized that socialization happens with regard to how we process right and wrong. Moral reasoning was the foundation for his theory, and he breaks down this work into three stages of development:

Stage I: Kohlberg called this the preconventional stage and he said that this happens from birth to age 12 or 13. He said that we make our decisions not based on what is morally right or wrong. Rather, he theorized that we make our decisions in this stage, based on what feels good to us with little or no recognition of the impact of our decision on others.

Stage II: Kohlberg called this the conventional level, and he said this occurs from around the age of puberty to young adulthood. In this stage. He theorized that we begin to determine what is right and wrong. However, our concept of right and wrong is largely determined by our ability to follow--or decide to break--the rules. In this stage we decide to do what were told to do for the most part. Kohlberg asserts that our respect for authority develops in this stage.

Stage III: Kohlberg called this the postconventional stage. Here, as with Piaget's final stage, we begin to form our decisions based on abstract thought. We develop a more well-rounded idea of morality and make difficult decisions in a more well thought out way.

It is important to note that Colbert did his work in the 1950s and 60s. And while his own research supported his theory he only examined the moral behavior of males. As a criticism, Carol Gilligan in the 1980s developed her own theory of morality called the "Morality of Care" model. Rather than trying to explain socialization in stages related to age, Gilligan developed her theory along gender lines. She asserted that women and men, boys and girls, developed their sense of morality in different ways. She called these two ways that "morality of justice" and the "morality of care." She theorized that men develop along a morality of justice model, which is a morality based on the rule of law. She further asserted that men make decisions based on this rule of law, which allow them to clearly make moral choices based on law rather than feeling. In opposition to morality of justice, she asserted that women make decisions based on a morality of care. She stated that this morality of care enabled women to make moral decisions based on helping those in need, rather than the rule of law.

Gilligan's theory was an important advancement in the field of socialization process at the time. Today, we can see how Gilligan's theory, while in advancement on all other socialization theories, has some shortcomings. We must ask the question, do men always make decisions based on the rule of law? Do women always make decisions based on helping others? And of course, we can answer these two questions with "no." As the lines blur between genders in our society, so do the ways in which we view socialization processes as related to gender.


All of these theories bring something to the socialization table. It is important for us, as students of sociology, to understand the strengths and weaknesses of each theorist's point of view. Further, as theorists about how we become not only individuals, but also members of society, it is our responsibility to continue to theorize--to come up with new and complete ways--about what makes us who we are.