What you'll learn to do: explain socialization and describe its major theories

A young girl with a birthday hat is yelling in front of a cake with several lit candles. Figure 1. Socialization is the lifelong process through which people learn the values and norms of a given society. Early birthday parties can socialize children to understand the significance of birthdays and teach them to associate sweets and gifts with birthdays. (Photo courtesy of Jorge Ibanez/unsplash)

How did you develop your sense of identity, and what makes you you? While psychologists generally focus on how the mind and internal thought processes lead to the development of the self, sociologists focus their study on the role of society and social interaction in self-development. How did the environment and others shape who you are today? When, and how, did you develop a concept of right and wrong?

In this section, you'll examine the work of behavioral scientists and consider what factors influence your identity and awareness.

Learning outcomes

  • Explain the importance of socialization both for individuals and society
  • Distinguish nature from nurture in socialization
  • Describe psychological and sociological theories of socialization

The Importance of Socialization

Socialization is the lifelong process through which people learn the values and norms of a given society. Socialization is not the same as socializing. Socializing is to mix socially with others (i.e., family, friends, neighbors, coworkers), whereas socialization is a process that may include socializing as one element, but is a more complex, multi-faceted and formative set of interactive experiences. It is also an adaptive lifelong learning experience, because society is constantly changing, and because we may find ourselves in new situations—such as a new job with different norms and values, or in a different familial role—such as that of parent or caregiver to an older relative.

As Danielle’s story from the beginning of this module illustrates, even the most basic human activities are learned. You may be surprised to know that even physical tasks like sitting, standing, and walking had not automatically developed for Danielle as she grew. And without socialization, Danielle hadn’t learned about the material culture of her society (the tangible objects a culture uses): for example, she couldn’t hold a spoon, bounce a ball, or use a chair for sitting. She also hadn’t learned its nonmaterial culture, such as its beliefs, values, and norms. She had no understanding of the concept of “family,” didn’t know cultural expectations for using a bathroom, and had no sense of modesty. Most importantly, she hadn’t learned to use the symbols that make up language—through which we learn about who we are, how we fit in with other people, and the natural and social worlds in which we live.

Sociologists have long been fascinated by circumstances like Danielle’s—in which a child receives sufficient human support to survive, but virtually no social interaction—because they highlight how much we depend on social interaction to provide the information and skills we need to be part of society or even to develop a “self.”

Socialization is critical both to individuals and to the societies in which they live. As individuals, social interaction provides us the means by which we gradually become able to see ourselves through the eyes of others, and how we learn who we are and how we fit into the larger world. In addition, to function successfully in society, we have to learn the basics of both material and nonmaterial culture, everything from how to dress ourselves to what’s suitable attire for a specific occasion; from when we sleep to what we sleep on; and from what’s considered appropriate to eat for dinner and even how to use the stove to prepare it. Most importantly, we have to learn language—whether it’s the dominant language or one common in a subculture, whether it’s verbal or through signs—in order to communicate and to think. As we saw with Danielle, without socialization we have no commonly recognizable sense of self.

For society to function, the socialization of individuals is necessary. Although how this occurs and what is transmitted in terms of cultural norms and values differs, every society relies upon socialization to ensure its survival. A core value in the United States is democracy, so children in the U.S. might hear about voting or go to vote with their families before they even begin school. Once in school, they will learn about American history, civics, and citizenship. Students also learn the ways that the U.S. has not upheld democratic ideals and has disenfranchised various groups of people. Thus, in addition to voting and learning how to use material objects such as voting machines, children also learn about various social movements and leaders who resisted the existing social norms in order to facilitate change. Learning about how society has failed to live up to its ideals (and continues to struggle in certain areas) helps citizens not only to understand values and norms on a personal level, but also to see the importance of values and norms in society, as well as how these can change over time. Remember that socialization is a lifelong process, so in our example, people will continue to examine whether or not the U.S. is living up to its democratic ideals over many years.

WAtch It

Watch this video to learn more about what it means to be socialized, and what things contribute to socialization. The video provides an effective overview of several concepts related to socialization that will be covered in this module.

A man and a woman are shown talking at a table in a café. Figure 2. Socialization teaches us our society’s expectations for dining out. The manners and customs of different cultures (When can you use your hands to eat? How should you compliment the cook? Who is the “head” of the table?) are learned through socialization. (Photo courtesy of Niyam Bhushan/flickr)

Nature versus Nurture

Some experts argue that who we are is based entirely on genetics or our biological makeup. According to this belief, our temperaments, interests, and talents are set before birth. From this perspective, who we are depends on nature. Others, including most sociologists, assert that who we are is a result of nurture—the relationships and environments that surround us.

A portrait of twins wearing traditional hunting gear is shown. Figure 3. Identical twins may look alike, but their differences can give us clues to the effects of socialization. (Photo courtesy of D. Flam/flickr)

One way researchers attempt to measure the impact of nature is by studying twins. Some studies have followed identical twins who were raised separately. The pairs shared the same genetic inheritance, but in some cases were socialized in different ways. Instances of this situation are rare, but studying the degree to which identical twins raised apart are the same or different can give researchers insight into the way our temperaments, preferences, and abilities are shaped by our genetic makeup versus our social environment.

For example, in 1968 twin girls born to a mentally ill mother were put up for adoption, separated from each other, and raised in different households. The adoptive parents, and certainly the adoptees themselves, did not know the girls were one of five pairs of twins who were made subjects of a scientific study (Flam 2007).

In 2003, the two women, then age thirty-five, were reunited. Elyse Schein and Paula Bernstein sat together in awe, feeling like they were looking into a mirror. Not only did they look alike but they also behaved alike, using the same hand gestures and facial expressions (Spratling 2007). Studies like these point to the genetic roots of our temperament and behavior.

Dig Deeper

Learn about the famous twins, Oskar and Jack, who were separated as infants and led strikingly different lives. You can visit the article “Separated at Birth” to read about five other sets of twins who grew up apart and discovered each other later in life.

Though genetics and hormones play an important role in human behavior, sociology’s larger concern is the effect society has on human behavior--the “nurture” side of the nature-versus-nurture debate. What race were the twins? From what social class were their parents? What about gender? Religion? All these factors affected the lives of the twins as much as their genetic makeup, and are critical to consider as we look at life through the sociological lens.

The Life of Chris Langan, the Smartest Man You’ve Never Heard Of

Bouncer. Firefighter. Factory worker. Cowboy. Chris Langan spent the majority of his adult life just getting by with jobs like these. He had no college degree, few resources, and a past filled with much disappointment. Chris Langan also had an IQ of over 195, nearly 100 points higher than the average person (Brabham 2001). So why didn’t Chris become a neurosurgeon, professor, or aeronautical engineer? According to Macolm Gladwell (2008) in his book Outliers: The Story of Success, Chris didn’t possess the set of social skills necessary to succeed on such a high level—skills that aren’t innate but learned.

Gladwell looked to a recent study conducted by sociologist Annette Lareau in which she closely shadowed 12 families from various economic backgrounds and examined their parenting techniques. Parents from lower income families followed a strategy of “accomplishment of natural growth,” which is to say they let their children develop on their own with a large amount of independence; parents from higher-income families, however, “actively fostered and accessed a child’s talents, opinions, and skills” (Gladwell 2008). These parents were more likely to engage in analytical conversation, encourage active questioning of the establishment, and foster development of negotiation skills. The parents were also able to introduce their children to a wide range of activities, from sports to music to accelerated academic programs. When one middle-class child was denied entry to a gifted and talented program, the mother petitioned the school and arranged additional testing until her daughter was admitted. Lower-income parents, however, were more likely to unquestioningly obey authorities such as school boards. Their children were not being socialized to comfortably confront the system and speak up (Gladwell 2008).

What does this have to do with Chris Langan, deemed by some the smartest man in the world (Brabham 2001)? Chris was born in severe poverty, moving across the country with an abusive and alcoholic stepfather. His genius went largely unnoticed. After accepting a full scholarship to Reed College, he lost his funding after his mother failed to fill out necessary paperwork. Unable to successfully make his case to the administration, Chris, who had received straight A’s the previous semester, was given F’s on his transcript and forced to drop out. After he enrolled in Montana State, an administrator’s refusal to rearrange his class schedule left him unable to find the means necessary to travel the 16 miles to attend classes. What Chris had in brilliance, he lacked in practical intelligence, or what psychologist Robert Sternberg defines as “knowing what to say to whom, knowing when to say it, and knowing how to say it for maximum effect” (Sternberg et al. 2000). Such knowledge was never part of his socialization.

Chris gave up on school and began working an array of blue-collar jobs, pursuing his intellectual interests on the side. Though he’s recently garnered attention for his “Cognitive Theoretic Model of the Universe,” he remains weary of and resistant to the educational system.

As Gladwell concluded, “He’d had to make his way alone, and no one—not rock stars, not professional athletes, not software billionaires, and not even geniuses—ever makes it alone” (2008).

Chris is a white male who was born in the United States, though he also faced considerable economic and domestic challenges. How would the story change if our example was a female immigrant, with dark skin? Social class and what Pierre Bourdieu calls "cultural capital" are important in directing one's life chances, but perhaps equally important are race/ethnicity, gender, economic class, and whether one is perceived as an immigrant or a native-born citizen.

Sociologists all recognize the importance of socialization for healthy individual and societal development. But how do scholars working in the three major theoretical paradigms approach this topic?

Structural functionalists would say that socialization is essential to society, both because it trains members to operate successfully within it and because it perpetuates culture by transmitting it to new generations. Without socialization, a society’s culture would destabilize and ultimately perish as members died off.

A conflict theorist might argue that socialization reproduces inequality from generation to generation by conveying different expectations and norms to those with different social characteristics. For example, individuals are socialized differently by gender, social class, and race. As in Chris Langan's case, this creates different (unequal) opportunities.

An interactionist studying socialization is concerned with face-to-face exchanges and symbolic communication. For example, dressing baby boys in blue and baby girls in pink is one small way we convey messages about differences in gender roles.

Think It Over

  • Why are twin studies an important way to learn about the relative effects of genetics and socialization on children? What questions about human development do you believe twin studies are best for answering? For what types of questions would twin studies not be as helpful?
  • Why do you think that people like Chris Langan continue to have difficulty even after they are helped through societal systems? How does this story help you understand the role of nature and the role of nurture? 

Theories of Socialization

Theories of Socialization

When we are born, we have a genetic makeup and biological traits. However, who we are as human beingsour identity--develops through social interaction. Many scholars, both in the fields of psychology and in sociology, have described the process of self-development as a precursor to understanding how that “self” becomes socialized.

Psychological Perspectives on Self-Development

Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) was one of the most influential modern scientists to offer a theory of how people develop a sense of self. He believed that personality and sexual development were closely linked, and he divided the maturation process into psychosexual stages: oral, anal, phallic, latency, and genital. He posited that one’s self-development is closely linked to early stages of development, like breastfeeding, toilet training, and sexual awareness (Freud 1905). According to Freud, failure to properly engage in or disengage from a specific stage results in emotional and psychological consequences throughout adulthood. An adult with an oral fixation may indulge in overeating or binge drinking. An anal fixation may produce a neat freak (hence the term “anal retentive”), while a person stuck in the phallic stage may be promiscuous or emotionally immature. Although no solid empirical evidence supports Freud’s theory, his ideas continue to contribute to the work of scholars in a variety of disciplines.

Psychologist Erik Erikson (1902–1994) created a theory of personality development based, in part, on the work of Freud. However, Erikson believed the personality continued to change over time and was never truly finished. His theory includes eight stages of development, beginning with birth and ending with death. According to Erikson, people move through these stages throughout their lives. In contrast to Freud’s focus on psychosexual stages and basic human urges, Erikson’s view of self-development gave credit to more social aspects, like the way we negotiate between our own base desires and what is socially accepted (Erikson 1982).

Jean Piaget (1896–1980) was a Swiss psychologist who specialized in child development, focusing specifically on the role of developmental social interactions. He recognized that the development of self evolved through a negotiation between the world as it exists in one’s mind and the world that exists as it is experienced socially (Piaget 1954). All three of these thinkers have contributed to our modern understanding of self-development.

Lawrence Kohlberg (1927–1987) was interested in how people learn to decide what is right and what is wrong. To understand this topic, he developed a theory of moral development that includes three levels: preconventional, conventional, and postconventional. Morality generally refers to the way people learn what society considers to be “good” and “bad,” which is important for a smoothly functioning society. In the preconventional stage, young children, who lack a higher level of cognitive ability, experience the world around them only through their senses. As teenagers, there is increasing awareness of others’ feelings, and teens begin to take those into consideration when determining what’s “good” and “bad.” The final stage, called postconventional, is when people begin to think of morality in more complex, abstract terms, such as Americans believing that everyone has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. At this stage, people also recognize that legality and morality do not always match up evenly (Kohlberg 1981).

Psychologist Carol Gilligan (1936–), recognized that Kohlberg’s theory might show gender bias since his research was only conducted on male subjects, so she set out to study differences between how boys and girls developed morality. Gilligan’s research demonstrated that boys and girls do, in fact, have different understandings of morality. Boys tend to have a justice perspective, by placing emphasis on rules and laws. Girls, on the other hand, have a care and responsibility perspective, and they are more likely to consider a personal rationale for behavior that seems morally wrong. Gilligan also recognized that Kohlberg’s theory rested on the assumption that the justice perspective was the right, or better, perspective. Gilligan, in contrast, theorized that neither perspective was “better,” and that the two norms of justice served different purposes. Ultimately, she explained that boys are socialized for a work environment where rules make operations run smoothly, while girls are socialized for a home environment where flexibility allows for harmony in caretaking and nurturing (Gilligan 1982; Gilligan 1990).

Effects of Isolation AND lack of Socialization

A family group of rhesus monkeys are shown sitting and grooming each other on rocky ground. Figure 4. Baby rhesus monkeys, like humans, need to be raised with social contact for healthy development. (Photo courtesy of Paul Asman and Jill Lenoble/flickr)

The necessity for early social contact was demonstrated by the research of Harry and Margaret Harlow. From 1957 to 1963, the Harlows conducted a series of experiments studying how rhesus monkeys, which behave a lot like people, are affected by isolation as babies. They studied monkeys raised under two types of “substitute” mothering circumstances: a mesh and wire sculpture, or a soft terrycloth “mother.” The monkeys systematically preferred the company of a soft, terrycloth substitute mother (closely resembling a rhesus monkey) that was unable to feed them, to a mesh and wire mother that provided sustenance via a feeding tube. This demonstrated that while food was important, social comfort was of greater value (Harlow and Harlow 1962; Harlow 1971). Later experiments testing more severe isolation revealed that such deprivation of social contact led to significant developmental and social challenges later in life, as shown in the example of Danielle, who was introduced at the beginning of the module.

Sociological Perspectives on Self-Development

One of the pioneering contributors to sociological perspectives on self-development was Charles Cooley (1864–1929). He asserted that one’s self understanding is constructed, in part, by our perception of how others view us—a process termed “the looking glass self” (Cooley 1902), which was discussed when we first introduced symbolic interactionism. This concept is central to sociological perspectives on self-development because it demonstrates the importance of social interaction in the development of one's identity.

Later, George Herbert Mead (1863–1931) studied the self, a person’s distinct identity as developed through social interaction. In order to engage in this process of “self,” an individual has to be able to view him or herself through the eyes of others. This is not an ability that is innate (Mead 1934). Through socialization we learn to put ourselves in someone else's shoes and look at the world through their perspective. This assists us in becoming self-aware, as we look at ourselves from the perspective of the "other." The case of Danielle, for example, illustrates what happens when social interaction is absent from early experience. Recall that Danielle had no ability to see herself as others would see her. From Mead’s point of view, she had no socially informed “self.”

How do we go from being newborns to being humans with “selves?” Mead believed that there is a specific path of development that all people go through. During the preparatory stage, children are only capable of imitation; they have no ability to imagine how others see things. They copy the actions of people with whom they regularly interact, such as their mothers and fathers. This is followed by the play stage, during which children begin to take on the role that one other person might have. Thus, children might try on a parent’s point of view by acting out “grownup” behavior, like playing “dress up” and acting out the “mom” role, or talking on a toy telephone the way they see their father do.

During the game stage, children learn to consider several roles at the same time and how those roles interact with each other. They learn to understand interactions involving different people with a variety of purposes. For example, a child at this stage is likely to be aware of the different responsibilities of people in a restaurant who together make for a smooth dining experience (e.g., someone seats you, another takes your order, someone else cooks the food, while yet another clears away dirty dishes).

Finally, children develop, understand, and learn the idea of the generalized other, the common behavioral expectations of general society. By this stage of development, an individual is able to imagine how he or she is viewed by one or many others—and thus, from a sociological perspective, to have a “self” (Mead 1934; Mead 1964).

Watch it

Learn more about Mead's theory on the self and how self-identity develops in this Khan Academy video.

Psychological and Sociological Theories of Socialization

As you have learned, both psychologists and sociologists have theories about socialization and the influences that make you you. The two disciplines differ, however, in that psychological theories tend to focus on internal processes and the mind, while sociologists focus on external influences, interactions, and society.

Psychological Theories of Socialization Sociological Theories of Socialization 
Focus is how the mind influences human behavior Focus is the role of society in shaping behavior
Psychologists tend to look inward (mental health, emotional processes) to understand human behavior Sociologists tend to look outward (social institutions, cultural norms, interactions with others) to understand human behavior
Key psychological contributions by Sigmund Freud Key sociological contributions by George Herbert Mead

Think It Over

Imagine conducting research on first kisses.

The viral video First Kiss was a clothing advertisement with models, actors, and musicians paid to kiss a stranger. Images of beautiful strangers kissing to a soundtrack of trendy music reinforces cultural ideals about what a first kiss means, and provide ample material for sociological theorization.

A sociologist would likely examine cultural norms for dating, religious beliefs, age, gender, sexual orientation, historical patterns for a first kiss, and society (including geographic location). Romantic love was not part of any society until the 18th Century. Prior to that, marriage was primarily a political and economic arrangement within which love and desire were not considerations, thought they could potentially evolve as part of the union.

A recent study of the first kiss by psychologists at the University of Connecticut examined the reflection of personality (i.e., introvert or extrovert), internal and external motivations, psychosocial qualities of identity and intimacy, and additional factors such as the family's religious background, self-esteem, use of alcohol, academic experiences, body image, and body size (Lefkowitz et. al. 2018).

Sociologists and psychologists have sometimes collaborated to increase knowledge, and the disciplinary subfields of both social psychology and bio-sociological research offer some overlapping perspectives. However, generally speaking the focus on internal (psychology) and external (sociology) elements remain the fundamental orientations for each discipline. Both disciplines make valuable contributions through different approaches, and provide us with a diverse range of useful insights.


generalized other:

the common behavioral expectations of general society

moral development:

a person’s distinct sense of identity as developed through social interaction


the influence of our genetic makeup on self-development


the role that our social environment plays in self-development


a person’s distinct sense of identity as developed through social interaction


the process wherein people come to understand societal norms and expectations, accept society’s beliefs, and become aware of societal values

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