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 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
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
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
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
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/
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.
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.
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.
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).
Figure 3. Some people are
concerned about the way
girls today are socialized
into a “princess
culture.” (Photo courtesy of
Emily Stanchfield/flickr)
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
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
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).
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