Section 3.5: Socialization Through Life

Fundamentals of Sociology - Adam McKee and Scott Bransford

Social groups, especially our families, give us our initial taste of social interactions, a process known as socialization (Berger & Luckmann, 1966). Imagine the family as a small classroom where you start learning the basics of life. Parents, siblings, and other family members play the part of teachers, guiding you on how to behave, talk, eat, and even play.

As you grow older, you start to spend more time with friends or peer groups. These peers become your secondary ‘teachers’. They help you understand what’s cool and what’s not, how to interact in different social situations, and even help shape your interests and hobbies.

In both these groups – families and peers – you learn about ‘material culture.’ Think of material culture as all the physical things around you that have a particular meaning or purpose in your society. This includes everything from how to use a fork to eat to understanding the significance of a national flag.

In addition to this, you’re also introduced to society’s beliefs and values. These are like invisible threads that hold society together, guiding how people should behave and what they should value. These can be things like respecting elders, believing in equality, or valuing education.

All these experiences of socialization help you understand your role in society and shape your identity. They allow you to navigate the world confidently, respecting societal norms while also expressing your unique self (Mead, 1934).

Social Groups: Catalysts of Change

Our first experiences of social interactions often occur within social groups. Think of these as your first training grounds, where you begin to understand and navigate the world around you. These groups, which start with our families and later include our friends or peer groups, share expectations, reinforce rules, and introduce us to material culture and societal beliefs and values (Berger & Luckmann, 1966).

Family: Our First Classroom

The family is your first teacher in this grand course of life. Parents, siblings, grandparents, and even extended family members all play a part in your learning. They teach you a multitude of things – how to use everyday items like clothes, computers, books, and bicycles, how to interact with different people, and how to understand the world around you. This process of learning and teaching about objects and ideas is known as socialization (Mead, 1934).

However, families do not operate in isolation. A variety of social factors influence the way a family raises its children. For example, consider how behaviors change depending on the historical period. Sixty years ago, it was common for parents to discipline their children physically. Today, such actions might be seen as child abuse.

Social factors like race, social class, and religion significantly shape socialization. Poor families, for instance, might stress obedience and conformity, while wealthier families might encourage creativity and independent thinking (National Opinion Research Center, 2008). This is often because these behaviors are beneficial in the types of jobs these families typically hold. Consequently, children often end up in similar jobs as their parents, thereby reproducing the class system (Kohn, 1977).

Let’s look at an example from Sweden, where stay-at-home fathers are an accepted part of society. Government policies provide paid leave for families with newborns, and this can be shared between mothers and fathers. With about 90% of Swedish fathers taking paternity leave, it raises questions about how children raised in such a society perceive parental gender norms and how this differs from societies with different norms, like the United States (The Economist, 2014).

Peer Groups: A New Training Ground

As we grow, we begin to interact more with peer groups composed of individuals of similar age, social status, and interests. These groups play a significant role in our development, especially during our teenage years when we seek to establish our identity separate from our parents (Mead, 1934).

Consider the playground, where younger kids learn the rules of a game or how to wait their turn from older kids. As we grow older, our peer groups change, and so do the activities we engage in. This offers us diverse opportunities for socialization outside of our families. While friendships rank high in our priorities during adolescence, it’s important to note that parental influence still holds significant sway.

In conclusion, social groups, starting with our families and later including our peers, act as agents of change, shaping us into social beings with unique identities. They teach us about societal norms and expectations, helping us navigate the world confidently.

Institutional Agents: Crucial Players in Socialization

Institutions, the structures or mechanisms of social order, play a significant role in our social development. Formal institutions, like schools, workplaces, and the government, instruct us on how to behave and navigate these systems. Other institutions, like the media, impart information about societal norms and expectations.

Schools: Nurseries of Socialization

American children spend approximately seven hours each day, for 180 days a year, in school, emphasizing the significant influence schools have on their socialization (U.S. Department of Education, 2004). While the primary function of schools is to teach subjects such as math, reading, and science, they also serve a latent function of socializing children into societal behaviors like teamwork, following a schedule, and using textbooks.

Teachers, serving as role models and leaders, reinforce societal expectations through school and classroom rituals. This is part of what sociologists call the ‘hidden curriculum,’ the informal teaching done by schools (Bowles and Gintis, 1976). For instance, American schools have ingrained a sense of competition into students through the grading system and how teachers evaluate students. This hidden curriculum prepares children for adult life by teaching them to deal with bureaucracy, rules, and expectations.

Schools also play a role in nurturing a sense of citizenship and national pride. In the U.S., children are taught to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, and most districts require classes about U.S. history and geography. Textbooks have been revised to reflect an evolving understanding of history and attitudes towards other cultures, thus socializing children to different national or world histories than earlier generations.

The Workplace: A Different Stage for Socialization

Much like children spend their day at school, adults spend a significant amount of their day at the workplace. Even though individuals are socialized into their culture since birth, they require additional socialization to adjust to a workplace’s material culture (like operating office equipment) and nonmaterial culture (like understanding office etiquette) (Van Maanen, 1978).

Different jobs necessitate different types of socialization. In the past, it was common for individuals to work a single job until retirement, but today, people often switch jobs every decade. This means that individuals must become socialized in a variety of work environments.

Religion: A Sacred Institution for Socialization

Religion plays a crucial role in socialization for many people. Religious institutions, like synagogues, temples, churches, and mosques, instruct participants on how to interact with the religion’s material culture and uphold gender norms through socialization. Organized religion fosters a shared set of socialized values that are passed on through society.

Government: Defining Age Norms

Many rites of passage are based on age norms established by the government. Turning eighteen years old usually means becoming an “adult,” taking on legal responsibilities. At sixty-five, individuals are typically considered “senior” as they become eligible for senior benefits. Each time we embark on one of these new categories, we must be socialized into our new role.

Mass Media: The Impersonal Socializer

Mass media, which distribute information to a broad audience through television, newspapers, radio, and the internet, greatly influence social norms. With the average person spending over four hours a day in front of the television, media exposure has a significant impact on what we learn about material and nonmaterial culture (Roberts, Foehr, and Rideout, 2005).

To sum up, social institutions significantly shape our social development. These institutions guide us on how to navigate the world around us, imparting societal norms and expectations and playing a critical role in our overall socialization.

The Life Course

Socialization is a lifelong journey, not an event that happens only once or for a short while. Think of it as an ongoing adventure rather than a stamp you receive at a certain point in life (Setterson, 2002). A major factor influencing this journey in the United States is age norms, which are socially accepted rules about what is suitable for each age group.

Consider this: as you grow older, you reach certain milestones or turning points where you need to adapt to a new role, like starting school, entering the workforce, or retiring. For instance, in the U.S., the government requires all children to go to school. This is because, back in the early 20th century, laws were passed to ensure that childhood is a time for learning, not labor. However, in countries such as Niger and Sierra Leone, child labor is still common and socially accepted, with little legislation to control it (UNICEF, 2012).

Cultural expectations about how we should behave at different stages in life become clear through interaction and observation. Remember when having a boyfriend or girlfriend in middle school was considered undesirable? Well, by the time you reach high school, social norms shift, and suddenly being in a relationship becomes the expectation. Similarly, when you graduate from high school or college, you’re expected to adjust to new social norms.

These educational expectations vary greatly from culture to culture, even within different socioeconomic classes. For example, a middle-class family might expect their child to attend a four-year university after high school. In contrast, other families might expect their child to start working full-time immediately after graduation.

As you move into adulthood, new challenges, expectations, and roles come into play. The wild parties and serial dating that were acceptable in your youth become less so in the eyes of society. Instead, responsibility, commitment, and settling down become the new norms. During this time, many people get married or enter into civil unions, start families, and focus on their careers.

Just as children play pretend to grasp future roles, adults engage in anticipatory socialization or preparation for upcoming life roles. This could be a couple living together before getting married or expecting parents reading baby care books and preparing their home for the new arrival. For those who can afford it, planning for retirement also falls under anticipatory socialization.

Sometimes, however, you need to unlearn certain behaviors because they are no longer useful in a new environment. This process is called resocialization and can happen when someone moves to a senior care center, attends boarding school, or serves time in jail. This process can be stressful as people have to let go of behaviors that have become second nature to them.

Resocialization often happens in a total institution, a place isolated from society where people must follow a new set of rules. Examples include a ship at sea, religious convents, prisons, or the military. These are places cut off from the larger society. In the U.S., for example, around 6.9 million people lived in prisons and penitentiaries at the end of 2012 (U.S. Department of Justice, 2012).

Resocialization in an institution often involves a two-part process. First, new members go through a degradation ceremony, where they give up their old identities. This could be a gentle process, like moving into a senior care home, or more extreme, like starting a prison sentence or joining the army. The second part involves building a new identity that aligns with the new society, like soldiers going through basic training and learning to adhere to the military’s strict rules and schedules.

When leaving a total institution, yet another process of resocialization is required. For instance, soldiers transitioning back into civilian life have to adapt once again. Some leverage the discipline and work ethic they gained in the military to excel in their new careers. However, others might find themselves at a loss, unsure about the world outside the military and uncertain about their next steps. The transition from military to civilian life, just like any other major shift, is not a simple one (Department of Veterans Affairs, 2021).

Now, let’s further explore the concept of ‘total institution.’ This is a term used to describe a place where people live isolated from the rest of society and follow a set of rules and structures that are unique to that institution (Goffman, 1961). Examples of such places include prisons, military bases, and even some religious convents. In these institutions, individuals undergo a process called resocialization, where they unlearn old behaviors and habits and learn new ones to adapt to the new environment.

One of the initial steps in resocialization within a total institution is what is called a ‘degradation ceremony’ (Garfinkel, 1956). This is a process in which new members are stripped of their previous identities and given new ones. This process can vary widely based on the institution; it might be gentle, such as entering a senior care home where belongings and aspects of one’s identity are compassionately given up. In contrast, it could also be quite extreme, as in prisons where individuals lose their freedom, rights, and personal possessions. In the military, for instance, new recruits have their hair cut short, wear uniforms, and surrender any symbols of their former identity as part of their transformation into soldiers.

After individuals have been stripped of their old identities, they start the process of building a new one that aligns with the society of the total institution. In the military, this is done through basic training, where soldiers learn the rules, form bonds with their comrades, and adapt to the strict schedules and discipline of military life.

However, transitioning back to civilian life from a total institution requires another layer of resocialization. Soldiers, for instance, have to relearn how to live in a world that operates under different norms and rules. While some manage to transfer the discipline and hard work they learned in the military to successful careers, others might struggle with this transition, unsure of how to navigate the civilian world (Demers, 2011).

In conclusion, socialization is an ongoing process that accompanies us throughout our lives, molding our behaviors, values, and roles to match the expectations of our society. It occurs in various forms and environments and can involve unlearning old behaviors and learning new ones, particularly when we transition into new roles or settings. Resocialization, a significant part of this process, can be particularly challenging but is necessary for adaptation to new societal roles and norms.


Socialization, a crucial process that begins within our families, introduces us to social interactions and the nuances of life. As we grow, peers also influence our understanding of societal norms and material culture. This lifelong learning process helps us comprehend our societal roles, shape our identities, and navigate the world confidently. Socialization is influenced by various factors, including social class, race, and religion, which can significantly shape our behaviors and values, thereby reproducing societal structures.

Families serve as our first educators in life, teaching us valuable lessons about the world and social norms, a process known as socialization. However, this process is influenced by a variety of social factors, such as race, social class, and religion. As we grow, peer groups also play a significant role in our social development. They offer diverse socialization opportunities outside the family. Both families and peer groups shape our unique identities, helping us understand societal norms and expectations and navigate the world confidently.

Institutions like schools, workplaces, religious organizations, governments, and the media significantly influence our social development. Schools provide a ‘hidden curriculum’ teaching societal norms, while workplaces necessitate additional socialization to adapt to different environments. Religious institutions foster shared values, and governments establish age-based norms. The mass media, with its vast reach, impacts our understanding of societal norms and culture. Overall, these institutions impart societal norms and expectations, shaping our socialization and helping us navigate the world.

Socialization is an ongoing, lifelong process influenced by age norms and societal expectations. Milestones like starting school, entering the workforce, or retiring prompt adjustments to new roles, differing greatly across cultures and socioeconomic classes. Anticipatory socialization prepares us for future roles, while resocialization involves unlearning behaviors no longer suitable in a new setting, often occurring in total institutions like prisons or the military. Transitioning from these institutions requires further resocialization. Overall, socialization shapes our behaviors, values, and roles according to societal norms.

Word Count: 3190

Key Terms

Age norms, Anticipatory socialization, Civilian life, Degradation ceremony, Family, Government, Hidden curriculum, Institutions, Lifelong journey, Mass media, Material culture, Milestones, Nonmaterial culture, Parents, Peer groups, Race, Religion, Resocialization, Schools, Siblings, Social class, Socialization, Total institution, Workplace

References and Further Reading 

  • Berger, P. L., & Luckmann, T. (1966). The social construction of reality: A treatise in the sociology of knowledge. Anchor Books.
  • Mead, G. H. (1934). Mind, self, and society. University of Chicago Press.
  • National Opinion Research Center. (2008). General social surveys, 1972-2006: Cumulative codebook. National Opinion Research Center.
  • Kohn, M. L. (1977). Class and conformity: A study in values. University of Chicago Press.
  • The Economist. (2014). Why Swedish men take so much paternity leave. The Economist.
  • U.S. Department of Education. (2004). Average length of school year and average length of school day, by selected characteristics: United States, 2003-04. National Center for Education Statistics.
  • Bowles, S., & Gintis, H. (1976). Schooling in capitalist America: Educational reform and the contradictions of economic life. Basic Books.
  • Van Maanen, J. (1978). People processing: Strategies of organizational socialization. Organizational Dynamics, 7(1), 19-36.
  • Roberts, D. F., Foehr, U. G., & Rideout, V. (2005). Generation M: Media in the lives of 8-18 year-olds. Kaiser Family Foundation.
  • U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2014). Number of jobs held, labor market activity, and earnings growth among the youngest baby boomers: Results from a longitudinal survey. U.S. Department of Labor.
  • Associated Press. (2011). More Swedish men choosing to stay at home with kids. CTV News.
  • Kohn, M. L. (1977). Class and conformity: A study in values. Dorsey Press.
  • Setterson, R. A. (2002). Socialization in the Life Course: New Frontiers in Theory and Research. Oxford University Press.
  • UNICEF. (2012). Child labor in Niger and Sierra Leone. New York: UNICEF.
  • U.S. Department of Justice. (2012). Prisoners in 2012: Trends in Admissions and Releases, 1991–2012. U.S. Department of Justice.
  • Department of Veterans Affairs. (2021). Transitioning from Service: Advice and Resources for Veterans. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
  • Goffman, E. (1961). Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates. Anchor Books.
  • Garfinkel, H. (1956). Conditions of successful degradation ceremonies. American Journal of Sociology, 61(5), 420-424.
  • (2023). When Veterans Return: The Role of Community in Reintegration. Journal of Loss and Trauma, 16(2), 160-179.


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Last Modified:  06/14/2023

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