Socialization: Structure and Stereotypes
Socialization, the process of internalizing culture and learning how to function in a specific society, can have a great impact on one’s personality growing up and on the choices one makes as an adult regarding careers and life goals. Our sense of self – of identity and accomplishment – is often seen through the social lenses of the culture in which we live. Some of the biggest influences in the United States are our perceptions of gender, race, and class, as well as the growing pervasiveness of mass media. Socialization can bring about positive and negative outcomes, the latter of which can potentially be avoided through education and awareness.
While social scientists, psychologists, and biologists all agree that the phenomenon of socialization exists, they also concur that our genetics and physiological makeup are strong influences upon us as we develop from infant to adult. Thus, the nature vs. nurture debate persists. The question, in a nutshell, comes down to this: are we more a product of our natural environment and biological determinism or of our society and cultural socialization? The general consensus is that both nature and nurture play a role in shaping our behavior. Most sociologists would probably agree, however, that what we often refer to as human nature is the direct result of our interactions within society (Conley 116). Therefore, in applying the sociological imagination to the possible agents and results of socialization, one does so in the context of our culture’s largely-shared social construction of reality.
One area in which people begin to become socialized at an early age is gender. A study published in the Oxford Journal Social Forces in 2014 suggests that young children begin making occupational choices based on perceived gender roles early in life, before they have any exposure to the labor market. These preferences can derive from parental influence, as seen in children demonstrating occupational imitation and behavioral sex-role learning (Polavieja & Platt 23). Other forces of socialization pertaining to childhood gender-role shaping exist outside of the home and family as well. For example, compare the products in the toy aisle of just about any department store. Toys with boys on their packaging show them being providers and career-seekers, out in the world in bright, primary colors; toys intended for girls show them in subdued, pastel colors being homemakers and caretakers (Conley 130). Even the kids’ section in Barnes & Noble reinforces this type of gender socialization through the books that they sell.
Despite being difficult to define, the concept of race is also part of the socialization process we experience growing up. Sociologists, anthropologists, and other scholars increasingly agree that race has no biological basis; it is a social construction (Sernau 108). Historically, racial divisions have been designated by societies, largely created through ethnocentrism to categorize people into higher and lower classes (Haviland et al. 96). It can hardly be disputed that these divisions are still in place today. Legal government forms, job applications, etc. ask us to identify our race. Society still wants to categorize us. We absorb these perceived differences as we grow up, and a negative outcome that sometimes results is racism. It may not always be as blatant as it once was, but racially-tinted tensions still exist, as evidenced by the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and other similar events in recent history.
Another consequence of our perceived notions of race is the “culture of poverty.” Coined by anthropologist Oscar Lewis in 1959, the term has come to encompass a self-perpetuating system that “is both an adaption and a reaction of the poor to their marginal position in a class stratified, highly individuated, capitalist society” (Sernau 129). The theory states that children in poverty learn a certain set of views and values that is passed down from generation to generation due to the limited opportunities presented to them. Technically, this is an issue of class rather than race. However, the ethnic groups that were marginalized through residential segregation and socially constructed stereotypes in Lewis’s day – whom the U.S. Census Bureau categorizes as “Black” and “Hispanic” – are the same groups with the highest rates of poverty today (DeNavas-Walt & Proctor 21). Considering this, one can start to see how our perceptions of race and class are intertwined, and how the culture of poverty may indeed be perpetuated through such perceived connections.
We are socialized to identify with class not just through race, but also through family. For most of us, the family is the first agent of socialization that we encounter, long before we are mentally mature enough to understand or challenge it. We learn a great deal about our world from our parents and siblings through both imitation and exposure. Studies show that there are differences in socialization from families among different classes, including values instilled by parents and the type of social activities and schools available (Conley 121-122). In the case of poor and working class families, this may be another reflection of the culture of poverty perpetuating itself. Some sociologists also use the term social reproduction, which refers to the tendency of children to remain in the same social class as their parents, even into adulthood (Sernau 212). Whether this occurs by choice or as a result of a stratified society may depend on the individual and/or circumstances, but certainly the phenomenon persists even today.
Other agents of socialization come from the major institutions of our society, the widest-reaching of which is probably mass media. In this technology-driven age of information that we live in, mass media is everywhere, and along with it comes both the reflection and the shaping of our culture. Television, radio, print, internet – especially with smartphones becoming a regular commodity, the often biased and almost always commercially-sponsored media has become nearly impossible to escape. With 90 percent of the media in the United States being owned by just six companies (Conley 102), the interests and messages supported by this massive institution are narrower than ever, hardly representative of our culture as a whole yet highly influential in molding us into consumers with specific views and agendas. These issues speak of purposeful socialization tactics, bordering on hegemony, at least half a century old: what Bill Moyers called “the tendency of media giants, operating on big-business principles, to exalt commercial values at the expense of democratic value” in 2003 (Alexander & Hanson 217), what Herbert Schiller spoke of when he said “America’s media managers create, process, refine, and preside over the circulation of images and information which determine our beliefs and attitudes and, ultimately, our behavior” in 1973 (Alexander & Hanson 4), and what Edward R. Murrow referred to as “an incompatible combination of show business, advertising, and news” and a “money-making machine… being used to distract, delude, amuse, and insulate us” in 1958 (rtdna.org).
With all of these different influences, among others, acting on us throughout our developing years of childhood and adolescence – indeed, even still in adulthood – it is easy to see how we might define our attitudes, values, and life goals through the archetypes and stereotypes we have been exposed to through society. Socialization can sometimes serve as helpful structure and at other times manifest into harmful inequalities. A key strategy to preventing potentially negative consequences is to remain educated and aware of the socially constructed reality in which one operates. By learning to recognize when we are reacting to something or someone based on socialized perceptions of social constructs, we stand a chance to avoid both prejudiced and self-defeating thinking. The worst thing we can do is take the effects of socialization for granted and simply accept them, because that is how stereotypes and inequalities are perpetuated.
Alexander, Alison; Hanson, Jarice. Taking Sides: Clashing Views in Mass Media and Society, Ninth Edition. Dubuque, IA: McGraw-Hill, 2007.
Conley, Dalton. You May Ask Yourself, Fourth Edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2015.
DeNavas-Walt, Carmen; Proctor, Bernadette D. Income and Poverty in the United States: 2014. Washington, DC: U.S. Census Bureau, 2014.
Haviland, Prins, McBride, and Walrath. Cultural Anthropology: The Human Challenge, Fourteenth Edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2014.
Polavieja, Javier G.; Platt, Lucinda. Nurse or Mechanic? The Role of Parental Socialization and Children’s Personality in the Formation of Sex-Typed Occupational Aspirations. Oxford University Press, 2014.
Radio Television Digital News Association. “Wires and Lights in a Box Speech.” Web. http://www.rtdna.org/content/edward_r_murrow_s_1958_wires_lights_in_a_box_speech
Sernau, Scott. Social Inequality in a Global Age, Third Edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press, 2011.