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Chapter 3: Socialization

3.2 Explaining Socialization

Because socialization is so important, scholars in various fields have tried to understand how and why it occurs, with different scholars looking at different aspects of the process. Their efforts mostly focus on infancy, childhood, and adolescence, which are the critical years for socialization, but some have also looked at how socialization continues through the life course. Let’s examine some of the major theories of socialization, summarized in Table 3.1 “Theory Snapshot,” below.

Table 3.1 Theory Snapshot


Major Figure(s)

Major Assumptions

Looking-glass self

Charles Horton Cooley

Children gain an impression of how people perceive them as the children interact with others. In effect, children “see” themselves when they interact with other people, as if they are looking in a mirror. Individuals use the perceptions that they believe others have of them to develop judgments and feelings about themselves.

Taking the role of the other

George Herbert  Mead

Children pretend to be other people in their play and in so doing learn what these other people expect of them. Younger children take the role of significant others, or the people, most typically parents and siblings, who have the most contact with them; older children when they play sports and other games take on the roles of other people and internalize the expectations of the generalized other.


Erving Goffman

Identity is developed through performing roles that are negotiated between the actor and the audience. Identity is in constant (re)development as people interact with others and as roles change through life stages.

Moral development

Lawrence Kohlberg & Carol Gilligan

Children develop their ability to think and act morally through several stages. If they fail to reach the conventional stage, in which adolescents realize that their parents and society have rules that should be followed because they are morally right to follow, they might well engage in harmful behavior.

Identity development

Erik Erikson

Identity development encompasses eight stages across the life course. The fifth stage occurs in adolescence and is especially critical because teenagers often experience an identity crisis as they move from childhood to adulthood.

Sociological Explanations: The Development of the Self

One set of explanations, and the most sociological of those we discuss, looks at how the , or one’s identity, self-concept, and self-image, develops. These explanations stress that we learn how to interact by first interacting with others and that we do so by using this interaction to gain an idea of who we are and what they expect of us.

Charles Horton Cooley

Among the first to advance this view was Charles Horton Cooley (1864–1929), who said that by interacting with other people we gain an impression of how they perceive us. In effect, we “see” ourselves when we interact with other people, as if we are looking in a mirror when we are with them. Cooley (1902) developed his famous concept of the to summarize this process. Cooley said we first imagine how we appear to others and then imagine how they think of us and, more specifically, whether they are evaluating us positively or negatively. We then use these perceptions to develop judgments and feelings about ourselves, such as pride or embarrassment.

Sometimes errors occur in this complex process, as we may misperceive how others regard us and develop misguided judgments of our behavior and feelings. For example, you may have been in a situation where someone laughed at what you said, and you thought they were mocking you, when in fact they just thought you were being funny. Although you should have interpreted their laughter positively, you interpreted it negatively and probably felt stupid or embarrassed.


Charles Horton Cooley wrote that we gain an impression of ourselves by interacting with other people. By doing so, we “see” ourselves as if we are looking in a mirror when we are with them. Helena Perez García – The Looking Glass – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Whether errors occur or not, the process Cooley described is especially critical during childhood and adolescence, when our self is still in a state of flux. Imagine how much better children on a sports team feel after being cheered for making a great play or how children in the school band feel after a standing ovation at the end of the band’s performance. If they feel better about themselves, they may do that much better next time. For better or worse, the reverse is also true. If children do poorly on the sports field or in a school performance and the applause they hoped for does not occur, they may feel dejected and worse about themselves and from frustration or anxiety perform worse the next time around.

Yet it is also true that the looking-glass-self process affects us throughout our lives. By the time we get out of late adolescence and into our early adult years, we have very much developed our conception of ourselves, yet this development is never complete. As young, middle-aged, or older adults, we continue to react to our perceptions of how others view us, and these perceptions influence our conception of our self, even if this influence is often less than was true in our younger years. Whether our social interaction is with friends, relatives, coworkers, supervisors, or even strangers, our self continues to change.

George Herbert Mead

Another scholar who discussed the development of the self was George Herbert Mead (1863–1931). Mead’s (1934) main emphasis was on children’s playing, which he saw as central to their understanding of how people should interact. When they play, Mead said, children take . This means they pretend to be other people in their play and in so doing learn what these other people expect of them. For example, when children play house and pretend to be their parents, they treat their dolls the way they think their parents treat them. In so doing, they get a better idea of how they are expected to behave. Another way of saying this is that they internalize the expectations other people have of them.

Younger children, said Mead, take the role of significant others, or the people, most typically parents and siblings, who have the most contact with them. Older children take on the roles of other people and learn society’s expectations as a whole. In so doing, they internalize the expectations of what Mead called the generalized other, or society itself.

This whole process, Mead wrote, involves several stages. In the imitation stage, infants can only imitate behavior without really understanding its purposes. If their parents rub their own bellies and laugh, 1-year-olds may do likewise. After they reach the age of 3, they are in the play stage. Here most of their play is by themselves or with only one or two other children, and much of it involves pretending to be other people: their parents, teachers, superheroes, television characters, and so forth. In this stage they begin taking the role of the other. Once they reach age 6 or 7, or roughly the time school begins, the games stage begins, and children start playing in team sports and games. The many players in these games perform many kinds of roles, and they must all learn to anticipate the actions of other members of their team. In so doing, they learn what is expected of the roles all team members are supposed to play and by extension begin to understand the roles society wants us to play, or to use Mead’s term.

Mead felt that the self has two parts, the I and the me. The I is the creative, spontaneous part of the self, while the me is the more passive part of the self-stemming from the internalized expectations of the larger society. These two parts are not at odds, he thought, but instead complement each other and thus enhance the individual’s contributions to society. Society needs creativity, but it also needs at least some minimum of conformity. The development of both these parts of the self is important not only for the individual but also for the society to which the individual belongs.

Erving Goffman

One of the many important contributions to sociology that Erving Goffman (1922-1982) made in the 20th century was his idea that related identity development to theater: an idea he called . The dramaturgical perspective is a microsociological analytic tool that has proved to be a useful approach to understanding the context of social interaction. Through this perspective, Goffman proposed that people are basically born on a stage of everyday life, and thereafter, are committed to a lifetime of the socialization process in which they play their assigned role in interaction with others who are also playing assigned roles; learning how to act and react from one another.

In further developing his analogy to theater, Goffman differentiated between front stages and back stages on which people perform their roles in everyday life. Most often, according to Goffman, people perform on front stages where they are engaged in public display (e.g., in a shopping mall, at a restaurant, school, etc.) and they can engage in what he called impression management. Impression management is what Goffman claimed people do through their front stage performances to manipulate how others perceive them. People, less often, also go to more private settings called back stages. In back stages, people can be themselves, and they can practice roles, rehearse lines, etc. for their front stage performances. People use what Goffman referred to as sign vehicles to convey whatever messages we want to send others about who we want them to believe we are. Some sign vehicles include:

Social Settings — How we choose, decorate or arrange our personal spaces (e.g., homes, cars, etc.)–what Goffman called props–says a lot about our social statuses and values, among other things. For instance, consider the type and model of a car someone drives: Is it a new, old, luxury, or economical model? What type of bumper stickers are on it? You can see how these might tell a story about someone, no?

Appearance — Perhaps the adage that reminds us that the first impression is the last impression is a bit harsh. However, impressions we leave on people do, indeed, convey a lot about us. Goffman tasks us to consider what impressions (sometimes driven by stereotypes) we may have of people because of the clothes that they wear, their gender, their race, physical stature, hair (or lack thereof) etc.

Manner of Interacting — Another sign vehicle is the manner in which we interact, or the messages about ourselves that we convey through non-verbal gestures during our performances. These would include gestures, facial expressions, body language, and even how we determine the amount of personal space we occupy. Consider, for instance, the varying ways people from different cultural groups greet one another. Does a bow convey the same thing as a handshake? Do all handshakes convey the same message? What does it mean when someone offers the left hand to shake?

Social-Psychological Explanations: Personality, Cognitive & Moral Development

A second set of explanations is more psychological, as it focuses on the development of personality, cognitive ability, and morality.

Kohlberg, Gilligan, and Moral Development

An important part of children’s reasoning is their ability to distinguish right from wrong and to decide on what is morally correct to do. Psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg (1927–1987) said that children develop their ability to think and act morally through several stages. In the preconventional stage, young children equate what is morally right simply to what keeps them from getting punished. In the conventional stage, adolescents realize that their parents and society have rules that should be followed because they are morally right to follow, not just because disobeying them leads to punishment. At the postconventional stage, which occurs in late adolescence and early adulthood, individuals realize that higher moral standards may supersede those of their own society and even decide to disobey the law in the name of these higher standards. If people fail to reach at least the conventional stage, Kohlberg (1969) said, they do not develop a conscience and instead might well engage in harmful behavior if they think they will not be punished. Incomplete moral development, Kohlberg concluded, was a prime cause of .

One limitation of Kohlberg’s research was that he studied only boys. Do girls go through similar stages of moral development? Carol Gilligan (1982) concluded that they do not. Whereas boys tend to use formal rules to decide what is right or wrong, she wrote, girls tend to take personal relationships into account. If people break a rule because of some important personal need or because they are trying to help someone, then their behavior may not be wrong. Put another way, males tend to use impersonal, universalistic criteria for moral decision making, whereas females tend to use more individual, particularistic criteria.

An example from children’s play illustrates the difference between these two forms of moral reasoning. If boys are playing a sport, say basketball, and a player says he was fouled, they may disagree—sometimes heatedly—over how much contact occurred and whether it indeed was enough to be a foul. In contrast, girls in a similar situation may decide in the interest of having everyone get along to call the play a “do-over.”


Carol Gilligan believes that girls take personal relationships into account during their moral development.  Photo by Zun Zun from Pexels

Erickson and Identity Development

We noted earlier that the development of the self is not limited to childhood but instead continues throughout the lifespan. More generally, although socialization is most important during childhood and adolescence, it, too, continues throughout the lifespan. Psychologist Erik Erikson (1902–1990) explicitly recognized this central fact in his theory of identity development (Erikson, 1980). This sort of development, he said, encompasses eight stages of life across the life course. In the first four stages, occurring in succession from birth to age 12, children ideally learn trust, self-control, and independence and also learn how to do tasks whose complexity increases with their age. If all this development goes well, they develop a positive identity, or self-image.

The fifth stage occurs in adolescence and is especially critical, said Erikson, because teenagers often experience an . This crisis occurs because adolescence is a transition between childhood and adulthood: adolescents are leaving childhood but have not yet achieved adulthood. As they try to work through all the complexities of adolescence, teenagers may become rebellious at times, but most eventually enter young adulthood with their identities mostly settled. Stages 6, 7, and 8 involve young adulthood, middle adulthood, and late adulthood, respectively. In each of these stages, people’s identity development is directly related to their family and work roles. In late adulthood, people reflect on their lives while trying to remain contributing members of society. Stage 8 can be a particularly troubling stage for many people, as they realize their lives are almost over.

Erikson’s research helped stimulate the further study of socialization past adolescence, and today the study of socialization during the years of adulthood is burgeoning.


Key Terms

Antisocial behavior – behavior that is not conducive to societal expectations, especially those that are aggressive or disruptive.

Dramaturgy — Goffman’s idea that relates identity development to theater.

Identity Crisis – a period of uncertainty about one’s identity, which can happen during transitional periods of socialization.

The looking-glass self – a process of socialization described by Cooley through which we imagine how we appear to others and then imagine how they think of us.

The role of the other – when children pretend to be other people in their play and in so doing learn what these other people expect of them.


Continue to 3.3 Agents of Socialization


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Exploring Our Social World: The Story of Us by Jean Ramirez; Rudy Hernandez; Aliza Robison; Pamela Smith; and Willie Davis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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