Agents of Socialization

Role of Groups and Institutions in Socialization

Agents of socialization are individuals, groups, and institutions that contribute to the formal and informal socialization of members of a society.

An agent of socialization is an individual, group or institution that contributes to people's socialization. Agents of socialization, such as parents, peers, schools, religious groups, media, and others, shape an individual's self-concept, values, and behavior. They serve to teach and model expected behavior and to transmit values and beliefs and traditions.

The first and most important agent of socialization is family. The most intense socialization—and the socialization that has the greatest impact throughout a lifetime—takes place during childhood, when babies and children spend the bulk of their time with parents and families. Families pass on their values, behaviors, and language at the time when children are first developing and establishing a sense of self.

A peer group includes people of about the same age, social status, and interests. Like family, peer groups also act as agents of socialization throughout an individual's lifetime. Children begin interacting with peer groups at an early age, playing with same-age children in their neighborhoods, day cares, or playgroups. Peer groups become more important during adolescence, when an individual's identity develops from childhood to adulthood. Peer groups exert a great deal of influence over an individual's behavior, choices, and sense of identity.

Many peer groups form at school, another important agent of socialization. In school, students encounter the values, norms, and expectations of the larger society. They learn not only the formal academic curriculum, but also what sociologists call a hidden curriculum—the informal teaching of expected behavior in school and society. Along with reading, spelling, and math, students learn cooperation, obedience to rules, patience, timeliness, and competition. While conformity to rules can have negative effects, such as apathy and a lack of critical thought, the hidden curriculum also prepares students to interact successfully within another agent of socialization, the workplace, by teaching them to work with others constructively toward common goals.

Mass media, platforms of information that reach masses of people, such as television, radio, film, magazines, newspapers, and the Internet, are powerful influences in society. While some mass media flow one way, from the sender to the audience without personal interaction, other media are interactive, allowing users to post messages and images in exchanges. Regardless of format, mass media are influential agents of socialization. Mass media give individuals a wide view of culture and ideas, as well as reactions to and judgments about the culture and ideas. Mass media have great influence over people's beliefs and choices. For example, what is reported on news programs and how it is reported can impact how people perceive social issues. Emphasis and dramatizing of crime reporting can lead people to believe that crime rates are greater than they actually are or that crime is increasing when it is actually in a period of decrease.

Other agents of socialization include clubs, teams, and religious and political groups. People can also become socialized through their involvement with a total institution, an institution that controls every aspect of a person's life, including when they eat, exercise, and sleep. Total institutions include the military, prisons, mental asylums, and some religious organizations. As a result of this institutional control, people's initial values or beliefs may change. For example, military personnel who have experienced combat may sit at the back of a classroom when returning to civilian life because they have been conditioned by training to keep everything in front of them.
Agents of socialization impart both positive values and beliefs, such as language and customs, and negative values and beliefs, such as racism and stereotypes.