Human infants are born without any culture.  They must be transformed by their parents, teachers, and others into cultural and socially adept animals.  The general process of acquiring culture is referred to as socialization click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced.  During socialization, we learn the language of the culture we are born into as well as the roles we are to play in life.  For instance, girls learn how to be daughters, sisters, friends, wives, and mothers.  In addition, they learn about the occupational roles that their society has in store for them.  We also learn and usually adopt our culture's norms click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced through the socialization process.  Norms are the conceptions of appropriate and expected behavior that are held by most members of the society.  While socialization refers to the general process of acquiring culture, anthropologists use the term enculturation click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced for the process of being socialized to a particular culture.  You were enculturated to your specific culture by your parents and the other people who raised you.

  world map with the Yanomamö and Semai homelands and Iran highlighted

Socialization is important in the process of personality formation.  While much of human personality is the result of our genes, the socialization process can mold it in particular directions by encouraging specific beliefs and attitudes as well as selectively providing experiences.  This very likely accounts for much of the difference between the common personality types in one society in comparison to another.  For instance, the Semai click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced tribesmen of the central Malay Peninsula of Malaysia typically are gentle people who do not like violent, aggressive individuals.  In fact, they avoid them whenever possible.  In contrast, the Yanomamö click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced Indians on the border area between Venezuela and Brazil usually train their boys to be tough and aggressive.  The ideal Yanomamö man does not shrink from violence and strong emotions.  In fact, he seeks them out.  Likewise, Shiite Muslim men of Iran are expected at times to publicly express their religious faith through the emotionally powerful act of self-inflicted pain.

photo of a crowd of Shiite Muslim men in Iran beating their own chests and backs   Shiite Muslim men in Iran
ritually beating themselves
bloody with hands and chains
as an act of religious faith
commemorating the death
of Imam Hussein in 680 a.d.

photo of a young child reading a school book

standard school
curriculum to assure
a broad acceptance
of society's norms

Successful socialization can result in uniformity within a society.  If all children receive the same socialization, it is likely that they will share the same beliefs and expectations.  This fact has been a strong motivation for national governments around the world to standardize education and make it compulsory for all children.  Deciding what things will be taught and how they are taught is a powerful political tool for controlling people.  Those who internalize the norms of society are less likely to break the law or to want radical social changes.   In all societies, however, there are individuals who do not conform to culturally defined standards of normalcy because they were "abnormally" socialized, which is to say that they have not internalized the norms of society.  These people are usually labeled by their society as deviant or even mentally ill. 

Large-scale societies, such as the United States, are usually composed of many ethnic groups.  As a consequence, early socialization in different families often varies in techniques, goals, and expectations.  Since these complex societies are not culturally homogenous, they do not have unanimous agreement about what should be the shared norms.  Not surprisingly, this national ambiguity usually results in more tolerance of social deviancy--it is more acceptable to be different in appearance, personality, and actions in such large-scale societies.

How are Children Socialized?

Socialization is a learning process that begins shortly after birth.  Early childhood is the period of the most intense and the most crucial socialization.  It is then that we acquire language and learn the fundamentals of our culture.  It is also when much of our personality takes shape.  However, we continue to be socialized throughout our lives.  As we age, we enter new statuses and need to learn the appropriate roles for them.  We also have experiences that teach us lessons and potentially lead us to alter our expectations, beliefs, and personality.  For instance, the experience of being raped is likely to cause a woman to be distrustful of others.

Looking around the world, we see that different cultures use different techniques to socialize their children.  There are two broad types of teaching methods--formal and informal.  Formal education is what primarily happens in a classroom.  It usually is structured, controlled, and directed primarily by adult teachers who are professional "knowers."  In contrast, informal education can occur anywhere.  It involves imitation of what others do and say as well as experimentation and repetitive practice of basic skills.  This is what happens when children role-play adult interactions in their games.

photo of 18 Asian Buddhist monks all wearing the same kind of gray robes.

  photo of five elderly North Americans singing together at a piano

young men undergoing rigorously
standardized formal education in
a Buddhist monastery

  older adults being informally
  socialized for their role as
  retired senior citizens

Most of the crucial early socialization throughout the world is done informally under the supervision of women and girls.  Initially, mothers and their female relatives are primarily responsible for socialization.  Later, when children enter the lower school grades, they are usually under the control of women teachers.  In North America and some other industrialized nations, baby-sitters are most often teenage girls who live in the neighborhood.  In other societies, they are likely to be older sisters or grandmothers.

photo of a North American mother playing with her preschool age daughter on the floor


photo of a pre-teen Bhutanese girl carrying her sibling on her back

  photo of a woman looking at her newborn grandchild in her lap

    North American mother
    informally socializing her

baby in Bhutan
under the care
of an older sister

 grandmother in North
 America helping to
 socialize her grandchild

During the early 1950's, John and Beatrice Whitiing led an extensive field study of early socialization practices in six different societies.  They were the Gusii click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced of Kenya, the Rajputs click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced of India, the village of Taira click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced on the island of Okinawa in Japan, the Tarong click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced of the Philippines, the Mixteca click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced Indians of central Mexico, and a New England community that was given the pseudonym Orchardtown.  All of these societies shared in common the fact that they were relatively homogeneous culturally.  Two general conclusions emerged from this study.  First, socialization practices varied markedly from society to society.  Second, the socialization practices were generally similar among people of the same society.  This is not surprising since people from the same culture and community are likely to share core values and perceptions.  In addition, we generally socialize our children in much the same way that our parents socialized us.  The Whitings and their fellow researchers found that different methods were used to control children in these six societies.  For instance, the Gusii primarily used fear and physical punishment.  In contrast, the people of Taira used parental praise and the threat of withholding praise.  The Tarong mainly relied on teasing and scaring.

map of the world showing the location of Orchardtown, the Mixteca, Gusii, Rajuputs, Tarong, and Taira

Location of the societies in the 1950's cross-cultural study of child rearing practices

This cross-cultural study of socialization is provocative.  Perhaps, you are now asking yourself what methods you would use to control the behavior of your children.  Would you spank them or threaten to do so?  Would you only use praise?  Would you belittle or tease them for not behaving?  Would you try to make your children independent and self-reliant or would you discourage it in favor of continuing dependence?  At some time in our lives, most of us will be involved in raising children.  Will you do it in the same way that you were raised?  Very likely you will because you were socialized that way.  Abusive parents were, in most cases, abused by their parents.  Likewise, gentle, indulgent parents were raised that way themselves.  Is there a right or wrong way to socialize children?  To a certain extent the answer depends on the frame of reference.  What is right in one culture may be wrong in another.

  map of North America highlighting the location of the Navaho

Even seemingly insignificant actions of parents can have major impacts on the socialization of their children.  For instance, what would you do if your baby cried continuously but was not ill, hungry, or in need of a diaper change?  Would you hold your baby, rock back and forth, walk around, or sing gently until the crying stopped, even if it took hours.  The answer that you give very likely depends on your culture.  The traditional Navajo click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced Indian response usually was to remove the baby from social contact until the crying stopped.  After making sure that the baby was not ill or in physical distress, he or she would be taken outside of the small single room  house and left in a safe place until the crying stopped.  Then the baby would be brought indoors again to join the family.  Perhaps as a result, Navajo babies raised in this way are usually very quiet.  They learn early that making noise causes them to be removed from social contact.  In most North American families today, we would hold our baby in this situation until the crying stopped.  The lesson that we inadvertently may be giving is that crying results in social contact.  Is this wrong?  Not necessarily, but it is a different socialization technique.


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This page was last updated on Thursday, December 08, 2011.
Copyright © 2002-2011 by Dennis O'Neil. All rights reserved.
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