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Chapter 4: Socialization

4.4 Resocialization and Total Institutions

You have learned that socialization is a lifelong process. Every time a person changes to a new status such as a college student or Pizza Hut manager, they need to learn the values and norms associated with the new position. Most of the time, the new norms are similar to the old ones and the process is not too challenging.

Other experiences may require more extensive changes, which occur through . They are still voluntary, such as getting divorced or joining Alcoholics Anonymous, but involve significantly changing one’s values, beliefs, and norms. For example, the goal of Alcoholics Anonymous is to try to change the alcoholics’ value system by having them internalize several principles about how to live their life. The goal here, of course, is to have the alcoholic stop drinking and to continue to refrain from drinking (Davis & Jansen, 1998). Some religious cults also resocialize their members to have new beliefs, values and norms; they continue to spark much controversy due to their brainwashing techniques and level of control exerted over members (Cowan & Bromley, 2008).

image showing recovery coins from Alcohol Anonymous

Alcoholics Anonymous medal, given to those who have been sober a certain number of months. On the back stands the Serenity Prayer. The purple medal is for 9 months of sobriety. Jonn Leffmann – CC BY 3.0 – Wikimedia Commons

At the other extreme is involuntary resocialization in places Erving Goffman (1961) termed . In such places, people are isolated from the rest of society and are under the total control of the officials who run the institution. As a result of the isolation and lack of autonomy, the person finds their old values, beliefs and norms no longer work, and so have to learn a completely new set of norms in order to survive.

image of military leader yelling at troops

A Staff Sergeant (a military training instructor) at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, marches his flight following the issuance of uniforms and gear during basic training. Recruits are molded into warrior Airmen through its Air Force Basic Military Training program. Master Sergeant Cecilio Ricardo – Public domain – Wikimedia Commons

Several types of total institutions exist: psychiatric hospitals, internment camps, concentration camps, military boot camps, convents and monasteries. Some scholars would also say that prisons are total institutions, as they exhibit some of the same processes found in the other types. As this list shows, total institutions can be used for positive or negative purposes; in the same way, resocialization can have positive or negative outcomes.

In order for resocialization to occur in these total institutions, in many cases first the person undergoes a , an encounter in which a resident is humiliated, often in front of the institution’s other residents or officials (Goffman, 1961). A drill sergeant may call a physically unconditioned male recruit a “girl” or “lady” and question his manhood in front of other recruits. In a psychiatric facility or prison, an inmate may be stripped naked and checked for lice and other vermin. Shaving the heads of new military recruits or prison inmates is another example of a degradation ceremony. The point of the degradation ceremony is to separate the person from their former self. Friends, family, personal possessions, all indications of who they were – even their name – is stripped away. In their place are new rules and regulations and an expectation to conform to them.

The second step in the resocialization process occurs when the staff aim to build a more compliant person. A system of rewards and punishments are used to encourage conformity to the new institution’s norms. Television or exercise privileges reward, while solitary confinement punishes. It is the harsh punishment meted out in total institutions that gets the most concern. For instance, drill instructors at basic training have a reputation for being unpleasantly tough. However, complete resocialization requires both an immersive environment and absolute submission to authority to succeed. While some find the treatment of new recruits abusive, others defend it as necessary for military discipline and readiness. The military is an authoritarian organization that demands soldiers to obey orders, something that is learned at boot camp. Failure to comply with the military’s rules means the recruit has not been successfully resocialized to the military culture and is washed out of the program. Religious cloisters have a similar structure, and also demand complete submission, with similar extreme punishments.

This does not mean extreme forms of punishment in total institutions are unknown. Literature on psychiatric hospitals is filled with examples of abuses of the patients living there (Goffman, 1961). Prison guards have been accused of using indefinite solitary confinement, stun guns, chemical agents and excessive force when interacting with inmates (ACLU, 2014). Concentration camps run by the Nazis tortured, starved, experimented on and then murdered their prisoners.

Reactions by individuals to resocialization in total institutions varies. Some are able to completely absorb the new list of values and norms, successfully becoming soldiers or monks, or becoming rehabilitated in prison. Others adopt the new behaviors temporarily, for example being model prisoners inside but reverting to previous criminal enterprises upon release – which begs the question of whether they were truly resocialized in the first place.


Watch and Reflect

Watch the video linked above to learn about basic training in the U.S. Air Force.

What aspects of resocialization can you identify?


While resocialization refers to the need to make fundamental changes to one’s values, beliefs and norms, a particularly severe form of resocialization is called , or the process of developing extremist ideologies and beliefs (Borum, 2012). We will revisit this topic again in Chapter 11 when terrorism is discussed. For the purposes of Chapter 4, understand that radicalization does not guarantee behavior; people may adhere to extreme views but not act on them, while others engage in acts of terrorism without having deep connections to a movement. In his article about how people become terrorists, Borum outlines not only what people think but how they come to think as they do. Sociologists emphasize how the social structure has to have an opening to allow for radical thought as well as the opportunity for the individual to be radicalized via social interaction. Termed conversion theory, Lewis Rambo described seven cumulative stages that result in radicalization.

  1. Context – cultural, historical, political and social factors that can influence the conversion process
  2. Crisis – caused by personal or situational factors
  3. Quest – precipitated by the crisis, to restore equilibrium
  4. Encounter – first contact between the individual and the new ideas or proponents of the new idea
  5. Interaction – continued contact between the individual and the new ideas or proponents of the new ideas,
  6. Commitment – (A) a decision to commit to the new belief system (typically a religious doctrine), and (B) a public declaration of the decision
  7. Consequences – the effects of the decision, acts and commitment to the new belief system, constantly monitored


Think Like a Sociologist

In 2013, when he was 17 years old, Dylann Roof kept hearing the name Trayvon Martin in the news. Curious to know more, he searched on Google and opened up a Wikipedia page that described how Trayvon Martin was confronted by George Zimmerman, a volunteer neighborhood watchman who assumed the 17-year-old was behaving suspiciously and took it upon himself to pursue the boy. When Martin refused to cooperate and fought back, Zimmerman fatally shot him, claiming self-defense. Roof, after reading the article, concluded that Zimmerman had not committed a crime, but his interest was piqued so he did another Google search, this time looking up ‘black-on-white crime.’ Afterwards, he is reported to have said, “I have never been the same since that day.”

The first site Roof came to was from the Council of Concerned Citizens (CoCC), described as a white supremacist organization by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). After Trayvon Martin’s death, the ADL found that white supremacist organizations like the CoCC were posting inaccurate stories about black-on-white crimes, as a form of propaganda for white supremacy. Roof read the article, which linked to other white supremacist sites which he also read.

On June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof murdered nine people attending a Bible study session at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina. He said he did this in order to start a race war. Investigators later learned Roof owned a website called The Last Rhodesian which contained photos of him with symbols of white supremacists and Neo-Nazis, as well as his manifesto on white supremacy. A ninth-grade dropout diagnosed with psychological disorders; Roof was adamant about his beliefs. Despite the efforts of his defense attorney to call attention to how he came to think as he did, Roof told the judge at his sentencing to ignore what the defense said, believing rather that he would be freed from prison by white nationalists once the race war began.

After reading about Dylann Roof, do you think he was radicalized?

Does Roof’s story fit the criteria as described by Rambo?


Test Yourself


Section 4.4 References

Airman Magazine (2022, January 16). The gateway to readiness. Vimeo. Retrieved January 20, 2022, from https://vimeo.com/341804430.

American Civil Liberties Union.  (2014).  The Dangerous Overuse of Solitary Confinement in the United States – Briefing Paper.  Retrieved from https://www.aclu.org/sites/default/files/assets/stop_solitary_briefing_paper_updated_august_2014.pdf.

Borum, R. (2012). Radicalization into Violent Extremism I: A Review of Social Science Theories. Journal of Strategic Security, 4(4), 7-36.

Cowan, D. E. and D. G.  Bromley.  (2008). Cults and new religions: A brief history. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Davis, D. R. and G. G. Jansen. (1998). Making meaning of Alcoholics Anonymous for social workers: Myths, metaphors, and realities. Social Work, 43, 169–182.

Goffman, E. (1961). Asylums: Essays on the social situation of mental patients and other inmates. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books.

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Barr, Scott, Sarah Hoiland, Shailaja Menon, Cathay Matresse, Florencia Silverira and Rebecca Vonderhaar.  (n.d.).  Introduction to Sociology. Introduction to Sociology | Simple Book Production. Lumen Learning.  License: CC BY 4.0. License Terms:  Access for free at https://courses.lumenlearning.com/wm-introductiontosociology/.

Conerly, Tonja, Kathleen Holmes, Asha Lal Tamang, Jennifer Hensley, Jennifer L. Trost, Pamela Alcasey, Kate McGonigal, Heather Griffiths, Nathan Keirns, Eric Strayer, Tommy Sadler, Susan Cody-Rydzewski, Gail Scaramuzzo, Sally Vyain, Jeff Bry and Faye Jones. (2021).  Introduction to Sociology 3E. OpenStax. Houston, TX.  License: CC BY 4.0.  License Terms:  Access for free at https://openstax.org/books/introduction-sociology-3e/pages/1-introduction.

Griffiths, Heather, Nathan Keirns, Eric Stayer, Susan Cody-Rydzewski, Gail Scaramuzzo, Tommy Sadler, Sally Vyain, Jeff Bry and Faye Jones.  (2015).  Introduction to Sociology 2E. OpenStax. Houston, TX.  License: CC BY 4.0.  License Terms:  Access for free at https://openstax.org/books/introduction-sociology-2e/pages/1-introduction-to-sociology.

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