Section 3.4: Socialization

Fundamentals of Sociology - Adam McKee and Scott Bransford


***Section 3.4: Socialization is a DRAFT Version ***

As we take our first breath in this world, each one of us is endowed with a unique set of genes and biological traits (Ouellette, 2012). These traits lay the foundation of our physical characteristics and certain predispositions. However, the essence of our identity – who we are as human beings – is not merely a product of our genes. It is through our interactions with others in society that we truly develop and grow as individuals (Mead, 1934). Numerous scholars from both the fields of psychology and sociology have explored the concept of self-development, emphasizing the significance of this process in understanding how the “self” becomes socialized (Cooley, 1902; Vygotsky, 1978).

To better grasp the idea of self-development, let us delve into the work of Charles Horton Cooley (1902), an influential sociologist who introduced the concept of the “looking-glass self.” Cooley postulated that our sense of self is shaped by how we believe others perceive us. In simpler terms, we see ourselves reflected in the opinions and reactions of those around us. For example, if our friends compliment us on our kindness, we are likely to perceive ourselves as kind individuals (Cooley, 1902).

Expanding on this idea, George Herbert Mead (1934), another prominent sociologist, explored the process of self-development through social interaction in his groundbreaking work, “Mind, Self, and Society.” Mead proposed that our self-concept emerges through our interactions with others and the subsequent interpretations of their gestures, expressions, and actions. In other words, it is through communication with others that we learn to recognize ourselves as unique individuals, separate from the rest of the world (Mead, 1934).

Mead (1934) also differentiated between the “I” and the “Me.” The “I” refers to the spontaneous, impulsive aspect of the self, while the “Me” represents the organized, socialized self that is shaped by the expectations and norms of society. Through continuous social interactions, we learn to balance the desires of the “I” with the requirements of the “Me,” thereby developing a well-rounded sense of self (Mead, 1934).

Another significant figure in the study of self-development is Lev Vygotsky (1978), a Russian psychologist. Vygotsky emphasized the role of social interaction in cognitive development, asserting that learning and self-development occur through interactions with more knowledgeable others, such as parents, teachers, and peers. Vygotsky’s theory of the “zone of proximal development” illustrates the importance of these interactions, suggesting that individuals can achieve optimal learning when they receive assistance and guidance from more experienced individuals (Vygotsky, 1978).

Drawing upon these scholarly insights, we can conclude that self-development is a complex, dynamic process shaped by the interplay of genetic makeup, social interaction, and cultural influences (Cooley, 1902; Mead, 1934; Vygotsky, 1978). As we engage with others and navigate the intricacies of society, we gradually construct our self-concept, transforming from mere biological beings to social creatures with a unique sense of identity. To truly understand the socialization of the “self,” it is imperative to consider the myriad factors and influences that contribute to our development as individuals.

Psychological Perspectives on Self-Development

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), a renowned psychoanalyst, significantly impacted our understanding of self-development by proposing a theory closely linking personality and sexual development (Freud, 1905). Freud suggested that as individuals mature, they progress through five psychosexual stages: oral, anal, phallic, latency, and genital. Each stage is associated with a specific aspect of an individual’s life, such as breastfeeding, toilet training, and sexual awareness (Freud, 1905).

Freud argued that if a person fails to properly engage in or disengage from a specific stage, they may experience emotional and psychological consequences in their adult life (Freud, 1905). For example, an adult with an oral fixation might overeat or drink excessively, while an anal fixation could result in an overly tidy person. Similarly, someone stuck in the phallic stage might exhibit promiscuity or emotional immaturity. Although Freud’s theory lacks solid empirical evidence, it continues to inform the work of scholars across various disciplines.

Erik Erikson (1902-1994), a psychologist, expanded upon Freud’s ideas and developed his own theory of personality development (Erikson, 1982). Unlike Freud, Erikson believed that personality evolves over time and never truly reaches completion. His theory encompasses eight stages of development, from birth to death, which individuals progress through during their lives.

Erikson’s perspective on self-development differs from Freud’s in that it emphasizes the role of social aspects (Erikson, 1982). For instance, he considered how individuals balance their own desires with what society deems acceptable. This focus on social influences highlights the importance of interpersonal relationships in shaping an individual’s sense of self.

Jean Piaget (1896-1980), another influential psychologist, specialized in child development and explored the role of social interactions in shaping the self (Piaget, 1954). Piaget posited that self-development involves a negotiation between one’s mental perception of the world and how it is experienced through social interactions. His work emphasizes the importance of social experiences in shaping a child’s understanding of themselves and their surroundings.

In summary, these three eminent scholars – Freud, Erikson, and Piaget – have each made significant contributions to our contemporary understanding of self-development. Freud’s theory highlights the role of early life experiences and psychosexual stages, while Erikson’s work emphasizes the ongoing process of personality development throughout life, considering the influence of social aspects. Finally, Piaget’s research underscores the importance of social interactions in shaping a child’s self-concept.

Sociological Theories of Self-Development

Charles Cooley (1864-1929), a pioneering sociologist, asserted that our understanding of ourselves is partly shaped by how we perceive others to view us, a process he called “the looking-glass self” (Cooley, 1902). This idea highlights the importance of social interactions in constructing our self-concept.

George Herbert Mead (1863-1931) further explored the concept of the self, describing it as a unique identity that develops through social interaction (Mead, 1934). According to Mead, individuals must learn to see themselves through the eyes of others to engage in this process of self-development. We are not born with this ability; rather, we acquire it through socialization, as we learn to empathize with others and view ourselves from their perspective.

Mead (1934) proposed a specific path of development that all individuals follow to progress from newborns to self-aware humans. The first stage, known as the preparatory stage, involves children imitating the actions of their caregivers or other people they interact with regularly. At this stage, children lack the ability to imagine how others perceive things, and their actions are mere reproductions of what they observe.

The play stage comes next, during which children begin to assume the roles of others. They might pretend to be their parents, for example, by engaging in activities such as playing “dress-up” or using a toy telephone, mimicking the behaviors they have seen their parents exhibit. Through role-playing, children start to develop an understanding of different perspectives.

As children progress to the game stage, they learn to consider multiple roles simultaneously and how these roles interact with one another (Mead, 1934). They start to comprehend the complexities of social interactions involving different people with various purposes. For instance, a child at this stage might recognize the distinct responsibilities of individuals in a restaurant, such as seating guests, taking orders, cooking meals, and clearing tables.

Lastly, children develop an understanding of the “generalized other,” which represents the common behavioral expectations of society (Mead, 1934; Mead, 1964). By this stage, individuals can imagine how they are perceived by others and, from a sociological perspective, possess a sense of self.

In summary, the development of the self is a complex process that unfolds through social interactions and the acquisition of different perspectives. Both Cooley’s “looking-glass self” and Mead’s stages of development emphasize the vital role that social experiences play in shaping our unique identities. As we learn to empathize with others and adopt their viewpoints, we gradually cultivate our self-concept, transforming from mere newborns to self-aware individuals with distinct personalities.

Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development

Moral development plays a crucial role in the socialization process, referring to the way individuals learn society’s definitions of “good” and “bad” behaviors. This understanding is essential for maintaining a well-functioning society, as it prevents individuals from acting on their impulses without considering the consequences for others and the community as a whole (Kohlberg, 1981).

Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-1987), a psychologist interested in the process through which people discern right from wrong, developed a theory of moral development comprising three levels: preconventional, conventional, and postconventional (Kohlberg, 1981).

The preconventional stage typically occurs during early childhood, a period when children have not yet developed advanced cognitive abilities. Consequently, they perceive and experience the world primarily through their senses. At this stage, children’s understanding of right and wrong is often based on rewards and punishments, with little consideration for broader societal norms or values.

As children grow into their teenage years, they enter the conventional stage of moral development. At this point, they become increasingly aware of the feelings and perspectives of others, which they take into account when determining what is “good” and “bad.” This stage is characterized by greater adherence to societal rules and a desire to meet the expectations of family, friends, and the broader community.

The final stage in Kohlberg’s theory is the postconventional stage, in which individuals begin to think about morality in more abstract and principled terms (Kohlberg, 1981). For example, in the United States, many people believe in the fundamental rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. During this stage, individuals recognize that legal systems and moral principles do not always align perfectly.

A real-world example of postconventional morality can be seen in the 2011 Egyptian protests against government corruption. Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians gathered to demand change, demonstrating their understanding that although their government was legal, its actions were not morally correct. This large-scale protest exemplifies the application of abstract moral reasoning to evaluate and challenge societal norms and expectations.

In summary, moral development is an essential aspect of the socialization process, as it enables individuals to learn and internalize society’s expectations for “good” and “bad” behavior. Kohlberg’s theory of moral development, which comprises the preconventional, conventional, and postconventional stages, highlights the progression of moral understanding from simple rewards and punishments in childhood to more complex and abstract reasoning in adulthood. This understanding of moral development helps us appreciate the intricate processes through which individuals come to adopt and uphold the moral principles and values that shape their communities.

Gilligan’s Theory of Moral Development and Gender

Carol Gilligan, a prominent sociologist, questioned whether Kohlberg’s theory of moral development exhibited gender bias, as his research only involved male subjects (Gilligan, 1982). She wondered if female participants would have responded differently and if a female social scientist would have identified distinct patterns when analyzing the data.

To explore these questions, Gilligan conducted her own study on the differences between how boys and girls develop morality. Her research suggested that boys and girls possess divergent understandings of morality. Boys seem to adopt a justice perspective, emphasizing rules and laws, while girls appear to embrace a care and responsibility perspective, taking into account the motives behind morally questionable behaviors (Gilligan, 1982).

Although Gilligan rightly argued that Kohlberg’s research should have incorporated both male and female subjects, her study has been criticized for its small sample size, and subsequent researchers have not replicated her findings. The observed differences were not necessarily indicative of distinct moral development but rather a consequence of gender socialization. This process teaches boys and girls the societal norms and behaviors expected of them based on their sex.

Gilligan also challenged the underlying assumption in Kohlberg’s theory that the justice perspective was superior or more appropriate (Gilligan, 1982). Instead, she posited that neither perspective was inherently “better” as they served different functions. Gilligan explained that boys are socialized for work environments where rules facilitate smooth operations, while girls are socialized for home environments where flexibility promotes harmony in caretaking and nurturing roles (Gilligan, 1982; Gilligan, 1990).

In summary, Carol Gilligan’s critique of Kohlberg’s theory of moral development raised important questions about potential gender bias in the research. While her own study has faced criticism, her work highlights the significance of considering both male and female perspectives in the examination of moral development. Moreover, Gilligan’s emphasis on the distinct roles of justice and care perspectives in different social settings encourages a more nuanced understanding of the complex interplay between gender, socialization, and morality.

Why Socialization Matters

Socialization is essential for both individuals and the societies they live in. It showcases the deep connection between human beings and their social environments. Socialization serves two critical purposes: perpetuating society and shaping individual identity (Berger & Luckmann, 1966).

First, socialization enables a society to preserve its way of life by transmitting culture to new members. If younger generations do not learn the traditions, values, and practices of society, it eventually disappears. To maintain a society’s distinctiveness, newcomers must acquire its culture.

For instance, to uphold U.S. culture, children must learn about democratic values, such as voting norms, and how to use material objects like voting machines. Some might argue that teaching the younger generation about restaurant etiquette or tailgate party rituals at football games is equally important. In the United States, there are numerous ideas and objects that people pass on to children to ensure the continuation of their society’s way of life.

Secondly, socialization is crucial for individuals. It allows us to gradually perceive ourselves through others’ eyes, understand who we are, and determine how we fit into the world (Mead, 1934). To function effectively in society, we must learn the basics of both material and nonmaterial culture. This includes learning how to dress, what attire is appropriate for specific occasions, when to sleep, what to sleep on, and what is considered suitable for dinner. Furthermore, we need to learn how to use appliances, such as a stove, to prepare our meals.

Most importantly, we must acquire language—whether it is the dominant language, a subculture’s common language, or a sign language—to communicate and think (Vygotsky, 1978). As illustrated by the case of Danielle, without socialization, we lack a sense of self.

In conclusion, socialization is vital for both individuals and the societies they inhabit. It ensures the continuity of a society’s culture and helps individuals develop their identity and learn how to function within their social environment. Socialization highlights the interdependence of humans and their social worlds, demonstrating that we cannot exist without learning from and interacting with others.

Nature versus Nurture

The debate over nature versus nurture has long fascinated researchers and sociologists. Some experts argue that who we are results from nurture—the relationships and care surrounding us. In contrast, others contend that our genetics entirely determine our temperaments, interests, and talents before birth, which depends on nature (Plomin, 2011).

To measure nature’s impact, researchers often study twins. Investigations involving identical twins raised separately are particularly insightful. These pairs share genetics but may experience different socialization processes. By examining the similarities and differences between identical twins raised apart, researchers gain valuable insights into how genetics and social environments shape our temperaments, preferences, and abilities.

A notable example occurred in 1968 when twin girls, born to a mentally ill mother, were adopted and raised separately in different households. Unbeknownst to their adoptive parents, the girls were part of a scientific study involving five pairs of twins (Flam, 2007). In 2003, the 35-year-old women were reunited, discovering striking physical and behavioral similarities (Spratling, 2007). Such studies emphasize the genetic roots of temperament and behavior.

Although genetics and hormones significantly influence human behavior, sociologists mainly focus on society’s impact on human behavior—the “nurture” aspect of the debate. Factors like race, social class, gender, and religion substantially affect individuals’ lives and must be considered when examining life through a sociological lens.

Sociologists acknowledge socialization’s importance for healthy individual and societal development. However, different theoretical paradigms approach this topic differently. Structural functionalists assert that socialization is crucial to society because it prepares members to function effectively within it and perpetuates culture by transmitting it to new generations. Without socialization, a society’s culture would disappear as members die (Parsons, 1951).

Conflict theorists argue that socialization reproduces inequality across generations by conveying different expectations and norms based on social characteristics, such as gender, social class, and race (Marx & Engels, 1848). This process results in varying opportunities, perpetuating inequality. Interactionists, concerned with face-to-face exchanges and symbolic communication, explore how subtle messages convey differences in social roles, such as dressing baby boys in blue and baby girls in pink (Blumer, 1969).

In conclusion, the nature versus nurture debate is a complex and ongoing discussion in sociology. Although genetics play a significant role in shaping human behavior, sociologists predominantly focus on the effects of socialization and the environment. Understanding how individuals are influenced by both nature and nurture is vital to examining life from a sociological perspective.


Self-development is a complex process influenced by genetics, social interactions, and cultural factors (Cooley, 1902; Mead, 1934; Vygotsky, 1978). Our self-concept emerges through communication with others and balancing spontaneous desires with societal norms. This dynamic process transforms us from biological beings to social creatures with unique identities.

Freud, Erikson, and Piaget contributed to our understanding of self-development. Freud’s theory connects personality to sexual development, Erikson emphasizes lifelong development and social aspects, and Piaget’s research focuses on social interactions in shaping a child’s self-concept. These scholars highlight the importance of early experiences, social influences, and interpersonal relationships in self-development.

Cooley and Mead emphasized the importance of social interactions in self-development. Cooley’s “looking-glass self” suggests our self-concept is shaped by how we think others perceive us. Mead’s stages of development describe how individuals acquire self-awareness through socialization, empathizing with others, and understanding societal expectations. Both theories underscore the crucial role of social experiences in shaping our unique identities.

Moral development, essential for socialization, teaches individuals society’s definitions of “good” and “bad” behaviors. Kohlberg’s theory of moral development outlines three stages: preconventional, conventional, and postconventional. These stages represent a progression from simple reward-punishment reasoning in childhood to more complex, abstract reasoning in adulthood, shaping individuals’ understanding and adherence to societal values and principles.

Carol Gilligan questioned Kohlberg’s theory of moral development for potential gender bias, as it only involved male subjects. Gilligan’s research suggested boys and girls have different moral perspectives – justice for boys and care for girls. Despite criticism, her work emphasizes the importance of considering both genders in moral development studies and recognizing the distinct roles of justice and care perspectives in various social settings.

Socialization is essential for perpetuating society and shaping individual identity. It allows the transmission of culture to new members, ensuring the continuity of a society’s way of life. Socialization also helps individuals perceive themselves, understand their roles, and learn how to function within their social environment, highlighting the importance of learning from and interacting with others.

The nature versus nurture debate explores whether genetics or socialization shapes human behavior. While genetics play a role, sociologists primarily focus on the impact of social factors. Different theoretical paradigms approach socialization differently, including structural functionalism, conflict theory, and interactionism. Understanding the influence of both nature and nurture is crucial for examining life sociologically.

Word Count: 3524

Key Terms

Self-development, Genetics, Social interactions, Cultural factors, Self-concept, Communication, Societal norms, Freud, Erikson, Piaget, Personality, Cooley, Mead, Looking-glass self, Stages of development, Socialization, Moral development, Kohlberg, Preconventional, Conventional, Postconventional, Carol Gilligan, Gender bias, Nature versus nurture, Interactionism

References and Further Reading 

Berger, P. L., & Luckmann, T. (1966). The social construction of reality: A treatise in the sociology of knowledge. Anchor Books.

Blumer, H. (1969). Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method. University of California Press.

Cooley, C. H. (1902). Human nature and the social order. Scribner.

Erikson, E. H. (1982). The life cycle completed. W. W. Norton & Company.

Flam, L. (2007, October 31). Twins separated at birth reveal staggering influence of genetics. New York Daily News. Retrieved from

Freud, S. (1905). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. Basic Books.

Gilligan, C. (1982). In a different voice: Psychological theory and women’s development. Harvard University Press.

Gilligan, C. (1990). Making connections: The relational worlds of adolescent girls at Emma Willard School. Harvard University Press.

Kohlberg, L. (1981). The philosophy of moral development: Moral stages and the idea of justice. Harper & Row.

Marx, K., & Engels, F. (1848). The Communist Manifesto. Penguin Classics.

Mead, G. H. (1934). Mind, self, and society. University of Chicago Press.

Mead, G. H. (1964). On social psychology: Selected papers. University of Chicago Press.

Ouellette, J. A. (2012). The human genome and human development. In R. M. Lerner, M. A. Easterbrooks, & J. Mistry (Eds.), Handbook of psychology, Volume 6: Developmental psychology (pp. 89-106). Wiley.

Parsons, T. (1951). The Social System. Free Press.

Piaget, J. (1954). The construction of reality in the child. Basic Books.

Plomin, R. (2011). Commentary: Why are children in the same family so different? Non-shared environment three decades later. International Journal of Epidemiology, 40(3), 582-592.

Spratling, C. (2007, October 31). Twins, separated in infancy, meet 35 years later. USA Today. Retrieved from

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Harvard University Press.

Modification History

File Created:  05/07/2023

Last Modified:  05/12/2023

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