Socialization and Culture

by Loretta F. Kasper, Ph.D.


            The discipline of sociology can be defined as the scientific study of human social behavior and activities and of the results of these social activities.  Sociology is concerned with how human beings think and act as social creatures.  In fact, the basic premise of sociology is that human existence is social existence.  This means that people are linked to one another and depend on each other for their very existence.  In fact, our sense of individual identity, that is, our sense of who and what we are, depends on how we interact with other people. 

            We all enter this world as potentially social beings.  When we are born, we are essentially helpless and must depend upon others to fulfill our most basic physiological needs.  As we grow and mature, we experience an ongoing process of social interaction which enables us to develop the skills we will need to participate in human society.  This ongoing process is called socialization.  Socialization is critical for human society as a whole because it is the means of teaching culture to each new generation.

Social Experience and Human Development

            The importance of social experience is evident in the lack of human development characteristic of socially isolated children.  Specifically, if early childhood is devoid of social experience, the child may fail to develop normal language skills leading to limitations in other social learning.  Genie, the young girl who was shut away by her father, is a prime example of what can happen to a human child who is deprived of social contact.  Although Genie received intensive training after she was found, she never fully recovered from the effects of the lack of early social experiences.

            Many psychologists and sociologists have studied the process of socialization.  Sigmund Freud believed that people learn the cultural values and norms which make up a part of the personality which he called, the superego.  If the superego did not develop properly, the person would have a very difficult time functioning in society.  Jean Piaget believed that human development is the result of both biological maturation and increasing social experiences.  George Herbert Mead believed that an individual's social experience was the primary determinant of individual identity, which Mead called "the self."  To Mead, the self contained two dimensions: the "I," which was partly guided from within; and the "me," which was partly guided by the reactions of others.  Charles Horton Cooley also emphasized the importance of the reactions of others to the developing self-concept.  He used the term, "looking-glass self," to describe how our conception of ourselves is influenced by our perceptions of how others respond to us.

Agents of Socialization: Family, School, Peers, and the Mass Media

            We begin the process of socialization within the context of our family.  The family has primary importance in shaping a child's attitudes and behavior because it provides the context in which the first and most long-lasting intimate social relationships are formed.  In addition to representing the child's entire social world, the family also determines the child's initial social status and identity in terms of race, religion, social class, and gender.

            While the family offers the child intimate social relationships, the school offers more objective social relationships.  School is a social institution, and as such, has direct responsibility for instilling in, or teaching, the individual the information, skills, and values that society considers important for social life.  In school, children learn the skills of interpersonal interaction.  They learn to share, to take turns, and to compromise with their peers. 

            The peer group exerts a most powerful social influence on the child.  The peer group is composed of status equals; that is, all children within a given peer group are the same age and come from the same social status.  A child must earn his/her social position within the peer group; this position does not come naturally, as it does in the family.  Interaction with a peer group loosens the child's bonds to the family; it provides both an alternative model for behavior and new social norms and values.  To become fully socialized, children must learn how to deal with the conflicting views and values of all of the people who are important in their lives.  These people are called "significant others."

            The mass media includes television, newspapers, magazines; in fact, all means of communication which are directed toward a vast audience in society.  The mass media, especially television, have considerable influence on the process of socialization.  Children spend a great deal of their time watching television, and the violent content of many television programs is believed to be a contributing factor in aggressive behavior.


            Socialization helps to shape and define our thoughts, feelings, and actions, and it provides us with a model for our behavior.   As children become socialized, they learn how to fit into and to function as productive members of human society.  Socialization teaches us the cultural values and norms that provide the guidelines for our everyday life. 

            Culture may be defined as the beliefs, values, behavior, and material objects shared by a particular group of people.  Culture is a way of life that a number of people have in common.  Our culture is reflected in what we wear to work, when and what we eat, and how we spend our leisure time.  Culture provides the framework within which our lives become meaningful, based on standards of success, beauty, and goodness.  Some cultures value competition, while others emphasize cooperation.  Our culture affects virtually every aspect of our lives.  Culture is not innate; human beings create culture.  Culture consists of a set of principles and traditions transmitted from generation to generation, yet because human beings have created it, culture is flexible and subject to change.

            Human culture is linked to the biological evolution of human beings.  The creation of culture became possible only after the brain size of our early ancestors increased, enabling humans to construct their natural environment for themselves.  Because human beings are creative by nature, they have developed diverse, or different, ways of life.

            Cultural diversity is the result of geographical location, religious beliefs, and lifestyles.  Culture is based on symbols, attaching significance to objects and patterns of behavior.  Language is the most important expression of cultural symbolism.  Sharing beliefs, thoughts, and feelings with others is the basis of culture, and language makes this possible.   Language is also the most important means of cultural transmission.  Language enables human beings to transmit culture not only in the present, but also from past to future generations.   Language is probably the most powerful evidence of our humanity.  According to two linguistic anthropologists, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf, the language that we speak actually determines the reality that we experience.  This Sapir-Whorf hypothesis states that we know the world only in terms of what our language provides, that language shapes culture as a whole.  For example, while the English language has only one word for "snow," the Inuit language has different words that describe different types of snow.  This occurs because distinguishing between, for example, falling snow and drifting snow is so important to the life of the Inuit.

            While it may be true that language shapes culture, it is probably equally true that culture shapes language.  For example, the increasing use of computers has led to new words and phrases in the language.  Words such as "gigabyte" and "RAM" (random access memory), while commonplace in English today, did not exist 50 years ago.  As more and more countries become technologically advanced, new words and phrases will also become part of their languages.  So language and culture are interrelated, and changes in either one are likely to result in changes in the other.


Directions:  Using the context of the reading passage, write a definition for the following words and sociological terms.

            1.  premise

            2.  potentially

            3.  ongoing

            4.  socialization

            5.  evident

            6.  prime

            7.  maturation

            8.  determinant

            9.  dimensions

            10.  spontaneous

            11.  "looking-glass self"

            12.  intimate

            13.  gender

            14.  objective

            15.  instilling

            16.  interpersonal

            17.  compromise

            18.  exerts

            19.  status equals

            20.  conflicting

            21.  "significant others"

            22.  aggressive

            23. culture

            24.  framework

            25.  diverse

            26.  cultural transmission

            27.  Sapir-Whorf hypothesis

Comprehension Questions

Directions:  Using the information provided in the reading and your own words, write an answer to each of the following questions.

            1.  Briefly describe the discipline of sociology.

            2.  What is socialization, and why is it important for human society?     

            3.  What happens to children who are deprived of early social experience?

            4.  What are some of the agents of socialization?

            5.  In what way(s) are the social relationships formed in school different from those formed in the family?

            6.  Why is the peer group such a powerful social influence on the child?

            7.  Why are government officials trying to limit the violence shown on television programs?

            8.  What are some of the indicators of our culture?

            9.  What is the relationship between the development of culture and the size of the human brain?

            10.  How is language related to culture?