Socialization comprises the processes that facilitate an individual becoming part of a social group. Socialization is a bidirectional relationship between the individual and socializing agents such as families, peers, educational systems, workplaces, and the media. These socializing agents provide the individual with information regarding the values, skills, and roles that will allow them to become incorporated into a particular group. In other words, socialization encompasses the processes through which culture is transmitted.
Socialization is a process that occurs throughout the life span, but one that has garnered particular empirical attention in early development. Indeed, much of the seminal work on socialization focuses on what is termed primary socialization, or the processes through which children learn the information necessary to become incorporated into a larger societal culture (Maccoby 1992). Early work on socialization focused on the processes through which parents facilitate the development of appropriate behavioral habits in children, beginning with relatively simple information such as personal hygiene and progressing to relatively complex interpersonal information such as learning how to coordinate and play with others (Maccoby 2015). Although there is a wealth of research on primary socialization through parental and family sources, early socialization does not only take place within the family. Previous work demonstrates the role of many sources of socializing information, including peers, educational systems, and the media. In fact, there is evidence that peers may be particularly influential sources of information about group norms and values (Harris 1995).
Socialization does not only concern the ways in which an individual navigates becoming a member of greater society, but can also concern the processes through which individuals become socialized into smaller groups within their culture. This conceptualization of socialization is often termed secondary socialization. For example, there is a wealth of research on organizational socialization, whereby individuals learn the skills and norms necessary to become functioning members of specific workplace environments (Ashford and Nurmohamed 2012). In organizational socialization, individuals acquire and evaluate information about how to do their jobs, institutional procedures, politics, and the local values and norms. Although much of this learning process may be situated in an individual’s early organizational tenure, researchers suggest that socialization processes are ongoing through an individual’s career. Indeed, this is consistent with recent work on socialization throughout the lifespan (Fingerman and Pitzer 2007). Studying socialization in later life presents interesting complexity, although it has been relatively understudied. Whereas socialization in early life generally concerns the acquisition of information and behaviors that will allow individuals to have future successes within society, socialization later in life involves the acquisition of information and behaviors that serve a number of different functions: the facilitation of future success, but also a desire to see continuity and growth with regard to their past and the need to adapt to social and physical changes.
What Information is Transmitted?
Information that is passed on to new group members is varied in that it can include any knowledge about what group memberships means and entails. The specific information conveyed through socialization is thus necessarily embedded in the context of the specific group. However, there has been a particular focus on the socialization of emotional information and information about social roles.
The wealth of research on socialization of affective information is a function of a variety of factors. First, this focus stems in part from an early acknowledgment of the importance of emotions in both psychodynamic and attachment theories. Children’s ability to communicate through emotions also predates their ability to communicate verbally, making affect particularly important in early socialization (Maccoby 1992). Finally, emotions are interpersonal in nature, and allow individuals to communicate and coordinate action, making this information integral in one’s ability to become part of a group. The research suggests that a key component of socialization is facilitating the development of emotional regulation. Thus, in primary socialization, parents help children develop the ability to cope with negative emotions, display emotions that are situationally appropriate, respond appropriately to others’ emotions, and develop empathy (Grusesc 2011). Emotions also factor into secondary socialization experiences. For example, through the process of socialization in the workplace, individuals learn to display emotional responses that will help them be evaluated positively by the new group (Ashford and Nurmohamed 2012). In addition, the experience of socialization itself can elicit emotional responses. The process of learning about appropriate group behavior may lessen negative affect such as discomfort, or may elicit negative responses such as disappointment (Ashford and Nurmohamed 2012).
There is also a large body of research on the socialization of roles, with a particular focus on how information regarding gender roles is transmitted (Wood and Eagly 2002). Gender roles stem in part from the differential information boys and girls receive about what behavior is appropriate. For example, cross-culturally, girls are more likely to be rewarded for nurturing behavior than boys, which in turn can contribute to women’s overrepresentation in societal roles that involve caring for others, including stay at home parents and nurses. Individuals also experience negative consequences for enacting behavior that is societally unexpected for their gender, reducing the likelihood they will engage in similar behavior in the future (Rudman and Fairchild 2004). Thus, socialization processes generally perpetuate the status-quo, contributing to the persistence of cultural values.
How is Information Transmitted?
The processes through which information about group membership is disseminated and evaluated are diverse, reflecting the broad range of theoretical perspectives on socialization (for reviews see Maccoby 1992, 2015). Much of the work on socialization draws from behavioral and learning principles, suggesting that individuals learn how to become functioning members of groups through a series of consequences, or rewards and punishments. Individuals also learn through modeling, imitating the behavior of others with whom they identify. Early socialization work also drew on psychodynamic theories, suggesting that socialization is the process through which individuals’ instinctual impulses are channeled into societally appropriate outlets. Subsequent research incorporated additional perspectives, including attachment and cognitive theories. Attachment theory posits that the relationship one has with a primary caregiver serves as a model for subsequent relationships in broader society, influencing how individuals interact more generally. Cognitive perspectives focus on the importance of an individual’s perceptions of the group they are learning about, including their desire to belong and view the groups to which they belong favorably (Harris 1995).
More recent approaches to socialization also consider the role of biological processes in the ways in which individuals become embedded in social groups. For example, recent work suggests that evolutionary theories are not at odds with socialization, but rather extend our understanding of socialization to include the more distal causes of these processes (Beaulieu and Bugental 2007). Evolutionary perspectives suggest that our current behaviors are a reflection of those behaviors that were adaptive in our evolutionary past, allowing our ancestors to survive and pass on their genetic material. Thus, our evolutionary pasts may have predisposed us to engage in the types of group interactions we do now, including caring for our young, and shaped the ways in which information about appropriate group behavior is transmitted. Considerable recent strides have been made in terms of incorporating the role of genetics more generally into the study of socialization (Grusec 2011). For example, there are genetic and hormonal predictors of the types of affiliative, prosocial behaviors complicit in socialization.
Current approaches to understanding the processes through which socialization occurs are bidirectional, combining previously discussed approaches and also allowing for an active role of the individual being socialized (Paschall and Mastergeorge 2016). Bidirectional approaches to socialization not only study the ways in which socializing agents like parents provide information about appropriate behavior to their children, but also study children’s reactions to this information and how these reactions may cycle back and in turn affect the socializing agents. The bidirectional approach thus acknowledges that an individual can elicit a particular type of response from a socializing agent, and that the individual may also actively seek out information regarding appropriate behavior and norms within a specific group context. For example, a child’s genetic makeup is a predictor of the kind of relationship that develops with their parent (Grusec 2011), and newcomers to an organization often explicitly ask mentors and peers about appropriate protocols (Ashford and Nurmohamed 2012). Studying the cyclical process of socialization is methodologically challenging. Much of the evidence for socialization processes are correlational, although recent reviews and critiques advocate for the use of more sophisticated methodological techniques, including gene-environment models and longitudinal studies analyzed with techniques such as structural equation models and latent growth models (Paschall and Mastergeorge 2016).
Socialization is central to the study of psychology in that the processes through which individuals gain and evaluate knowledge about social groups are essential to our ability to function as groups. Socialization is thus a broad construct, encompassing our navigation of different group contexts throughout the lifetime, and interaction with many different sources of information about these groups, including families, peers, schools, organizations, and media. Research on socialization has moved beyond considering an individual as the passive recipient of information from these various socializing agents. Instead, current approaches to the study of socialization include the active role of the individual and their ability to, in return, influence socializing agents. Current research on the study of socialization has also evolved to allow for a diverse set of processes through which information is transmitted, including classic examples such as modeling and incentives as well as a role for evolutionary and biological perspectives.
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