Professor Marshall

LESSON 4: Socialization Processes in Gender and Sexuality Context

Socialization Processes in Gender and Sexuality Context

Socialization theory brings us to a distinct MICRO level point-of-view about society. All of our socialization theories fall under the broader symbolic interaction umbrella and 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.

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 of socialization (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 after school 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 your 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.

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 acceptable 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 I or me to understandings of significant others, reference groups, and the generalized other:

Mead's Theory of Socialization

 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 Socialization

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.

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 we are 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 Kohlberg 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 an 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.

Relating Socialization Processes and Sexual Attitudes, Behaviors and Beliefs


Each of the primary agents of socialization helps to form our ideas, ideals and thoughts about what is "right" and what is "wrong" with regard to our sexual behaviors. Remember that when sociologists do research, they are interested in trying to understand the thoughts, feelings, beliefs and experiences of groups in society. In other words, sociologists want to know what makes us think and behave the way we do. The agents of socialization play crucial parts in how we think and behave. When we consider our sexuality, there are two ways to consider the component of socialization (these two ways of understanding sexuality were a part of your prior readings, and we'll go back to these ideas throughout the semester):

  1. The CONSTRUCTIONIST approach: we construct our attitudes, beliefs and feelings (which in turn influence our experiences) about sexuality and sexual behavior based on what we are taught is appropriate by agents of socialization
  2. The DARWINIAN approach: we are, essentially, "hardwired" to experience our sexuality in a specific way, and this in turn influences our attitudes, beliefs and feelings about what is appropriate with regard to sexual behavior and sexuality

Which one is "right?" Is there room for both approaches to have some level of meaning and validity?


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 students of sociology, it is our responsibility to think about how we become not only individuals, but also members of society. We must then continue to theorize--to come up with new and more complete ways of describing what makes us who we are.