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Chapter 4: Socialization

4.5 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. In general, the macro-level theoretical perspectives (the functional and conflict perspectives) view socialization in terms of its effect on society, while the micro-level perspective of symbolic interaction examines how the individual develops as they interact with other people. Also worth understanding are social psychological theories, which examine a person’s internal, psychological development and how it is influenced by society. The efforts of micro-level theorists 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 first examine how the theoretical perspectives view the socialization process and then take a close look at the theories of the self, summarized in Table 4.1 “Theory Snapshot,” below.

Macro-Level Sociological Explanations

Functionalists view all aspects of society in terms of how they contribute to its stability. As such, functionalists believe that socialization is necessary to teach people the same values, beliefs and norms in order to promote cultural cohesion, thus ensuring societal stability. Socialization is critical because it is the method by which all members learn their society’s beliefs, values and norms. Because all members think and behave in a similar way, there is less confusion and more cohesion between members. For example, when learning to drive, students are taught to drive on the right side and the accepted rules about merging into traffic. Contrast this with the confusion of driving in a parking lot where people cut across the lanes and seem unaware of other cars. Society benefits when everyone follows the same rules for the same reasons.

In contrast, conflict theorists believe socialization is the means by which the powerful are able to reproduce inequality in society. All members, they believe, are in competition for scarce resources, with resources being anything from power to status to prestige to money. Once a group gains control, it is able to use its position to stay in control; one way of doing this is via socialization. Recall that socialization is the process of learning the culture of society, while a dominant ideology refers to the attitudes, beliefs, values, and morals of the majority. Groups with power mold the dominant ideology and are able to define the norms, values and beliefs, including those related to social inequality, which may benefit the group in power.

The Horatio Alger myth offers an example of what this looks like. A series of stories were written by Mr. Alger in the 1860’s about plucky young men who were able, through their own efforts, to rise from poor orphans to successful members of the middle class — the proverbial pull yourself up by your bootstraps tales. This myth, oft repeated in books, movies and other media, results in the belief that individuals who aren’t economically successful are in this position merely because they are not making an effort, and conversely, those who have economic success merit the rewards of their position because, like Horatio Alger’s characters, it is assumed that hard work has led to their achievements. Looking back to Chapter 1, this myth exemplifies an individualistic or “blame the victim” approach to understanding social inequality. The reality is that other structural factors have far more impact on social mobility (to be discussed in Chapter 7), but the lesson learned from these stories is that one’s success is wholly dependent on individual effort which benefits the ruling class.

image of a book cover from the "Luck and Pluck" book series

Books such as Luck and Pluck by Horatio Alger followed the adventures of impoverished children who rose from humble backgrounds to live of respectable middle-class security and comfort due in great part to their own efforts. Public domain – Wikimedia Commons

Micro-Level Sociological Explanations

Symbolic Interactionists explain how the self is a social product, created and modified throughout life by interaction with other people. One set of micro-level explanations, and the most sociological of those we discuss, looks at how the , or one’s identity, self-concept, and self-image, develops within the social context. How do we get a sense of who we are? How does our personality emerge? Symbolic interactionist theories emphasize that we learn about not only our culture but about ourselves through socialization. If your culture values a skill or aptitude (such as being a musician or understanding mathematical concepts), the people around us will encourage that skill in us. Similarly, if your culture has no need for a particular ability, it will not be noticed or rewarded. Over time, the personality we develop is the result of these messages regarding what is desired and what is not. Several related theories are summarized in Table 4.1 “Theory Snapshot” and discussed below.

Table 4.1 Theory Snapshot


Major Assumptions

Looking-Glass Self

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

Role-Taking and the Stages of Self

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, society.


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.


Cooley: The Looking Glass Self

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 (a looking-glass being a synonym of mirror) to summarize this process. There are three steps:

  • Cooley said we first imagine how we appear to others. For example, we might imagine that we have a good sense of humor and are funny;
  • Second, we then imagine how others think of us and, more specifically, whether they are evaluating us positively or negatively. Using the previous example, we observe their reaction when we say something we think is funny; and
  • Third, we then use these perceptions (“I think I am funny, and the other people laughed at my joke, so I must be a funny person.”) to develop judgments and feelings about ourselves, such as where we excel and where we do not, and subsequent feelings of pride or shame.

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.

image of a man hitting a like button

Consider the use of ‘likes’ in social media and their impact on an individual’s sense of self-worth as theorized by Cooley. The person imagines they are attractive/funny/clever and uses the number of likes their posting receives to confirm – or reject – their original assessment of themselves. Oladimeji AjegbilePexels

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. In either case, according to Cooley what is most important is how this affects their sense of self: I must be good at sports, because they cheered. Or, since nobody applauded my music, I am not a good musician.

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, our self-concept is fairly developed, but this process is never complete. As young, middle-aged, or older adults, we continue to observe how closely the reactions of others match our self-perception and use our interpretation of the interactions to influence our sense of self. While interaction with those who matter to us has the most impact, even strangers can have an effect. In this manner, the self subtly continues to change.


Think Like a Sociologist

A key element of the Looking Glass Self theory is that we learn about ourselves from the reactions of other people to us.

Can you think of a time when you learned about yourself in this way?


Mead: Role-Taking and Stages of Self

Another scholar who discussed the development of the self was George Herbert Mead (1863–1931). Mead’s main emphasis was on children’s play, which he saw as central to their understanding of how people should interact (1934). When they play, Mead said, children take the . This means they pretend to be other people in their play and in doing so 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 this, 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.

image of George Herbert Mead

George Herbert Mead pointed out the importance of play in developing a self; play is the work of childhood. Public Domain – Wikimedia Commons

Mead said younger children take the role of significant others, or the people who have the most important and consequential contact with them; typically, these are parents and siblings. 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 three 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, mimicking without understanding what they are doing. This is not actually role-taking, but it prepares children for true role-taking.
  • Around the ages 3-6, children 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, accessorizing with costumes perhaps. In this stage they begin taking the role of the other as they try on being mommy or daddy, a firefighter or a teacher.

image of two children playing together

In this photo you can see a toddler and a 4-year-old playing. The 4-year-old is pretending that flour is snow, but the toddler is unable to grasp that concept and so is only imitating her brother. Jdcgumpal – CC BY-SA 3.0– Wikimedia Commons

  • Once they reach age 6 or 7, or roughly the time school begins, the game stage (or organized play) begins, and reflects the time when children are able to play team games. At this point, children begin to understand multiple roles at the same time which is necessary when playing a game. That is, they are able to understand the role they have and what is expected as well as the roles of the other players in order to anticipate what the other players will do.

For example, imagine children of different ages playing baseball. A child in the imitation stage cannot grasp even the basics of the game but may throw a ball because they saw their parent throw the ball. Children in the play stage may acknowledge the coach’s instructions and stand by first base but have to be told every step of what to do; they may lose interest and wander off, too, not understanding all of the responsibilities of their position. However, children in the game stage understand that in order for the game to work, they not only have to know their position (‘pitcher’) but also the positions of the other players, as well as how they are supposed to interact with the ‘catcher,’ ‘umpire,’ ‘outfielder’ and ‘runner’ when the ball is in play.

image of girl playing softball

By the time children reach the game stage, they gain a mastery of the rules not only of their own position on the team, but as well as everyone else’s. Public Domain – Pixabay.

Mead felt that the self has two parts, the I and the me. The I is the active, creative, spontaneous part of the self (“I shoved him”), while the me is the more passive part of the self (“He shoved me”), 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.

Goffman: Dramaturgy

Bridging the gap between socialization and social interaction, covered in the next chapter, is the theory of , first suggested by Erving Goffman. Goffman built on Mead’s concepts of the I and the me, and the tension we experience when we want to act spontaneously versus knowing what people want us to do. The dramaturgical perspective views social interaction at the microstructure level and is a useful way to understand how the context of social interactions affects behavior. Goffman compared social life to a theatrical performance, where people essentially play their assigned part(s), complete with a script to follow, costumes, props, and an audience watching. Through the process of socialization, individuals are taught how to perform their role in the production as they interact with other people (who are similarly playing roles in the same production). In this way, the self is a product of the interaction between the person and the audience. As sociologists Jonathan H. Turner and Jan E. Stets (2006, p. 26) summarize this approach, “Individuals are, in essence, dramatic actors on a stage playing parts dictated by culture, and, like all theater, they are given some dramatic license in how they play roles, as long as they do not deviate too far from the emotional script provided by culture.”

Part of playing a role correctly is our skillful use of . We understand (through socialization) that, in order to be convincing in the roles we play, we must use all our resources to present a particular impression to others. The way we speak and dress, how we carry ourselves, the items we use or own, all come together when we present our self; the audience’s reaction, whether it accepts this version or rejects it, tells us whether we succeeded. For example, imagine you are in your sociology class; what impression do you want to convey? Do you arrive on time, with your materials? Are you wearing sweatpants? Jeans? Business casual? Do you ask questions of the instructor? How do you interact with your classmates during class? What about after class?


Watch and Reflect

The video linked above helps to describe the theory of dramaturgy in more detail. Watch the video and reflect on your own experiences with dramaturgy and impression management.

Can you think of examples from your own experience where you have presented your front stage self? How does your front stage self differ from your back stage self?

What role does impression management play in social media interaction?


At this point you might be thinking your behavior depends on many factors, and Goffman would agree with you. He made a distinction between our front stage and our back stage. The is our more public face where we deliver our performance. It might be called our less authentic self since it is when our behavior is most affected by social expectations. The is both the private places where we practice our performance, and the less guarded version of self. In the preceding example, the front stage is the sociology classroom, where you might want your instructor to get the impression you are a serious student by arriving early and engaging in class. The back stage is where you prepare for class by reading the chapter and planning your performance. However, the back stage can also be where you are free to be your authentic self, perhaps as you gather with friends after class and admit not to studying for class but instead staying up late playing video games.

The front stage plays a prominent role in our lives. We must constantly be aware of the impression we are trying to make, and on which stage we are acting.  Whether it is with our customers or coworkers; with our grandparents or our friends; with our priest, minister or rabbi; or with our cosplay buddies, we modify our behavior to match the setting and role. And how do we understand how to juggle the self we present in order to present a convincing performance? Through socialization, which taught us the expectations for each situation and role.

Impression management is important in many settings and situations but perhaps especially important in the job interview. Many scholarly publications and job-hunting manuals emphasize the importance of proper impression management during a job interview, especially an interview for a full-time, well-paying job, (Van Iddekinge, McFarland, & Raymark, 2007). The strategies they discuss include impression management involving dress, body language, and other dimensions of social interaction. Interviewing tips they recommend include (a) dressing professionally, (b) showing up early for the interview, (c) shaking hands firmly while smiling and looking the interviewer in the eye, (d) sitting with a comfortable but erect posture without crossing one’s arms, (e) maintaining eye contact with the interviewer throughout the interview, and (f) shaking hands at the end of the interview and saying thank you.


Think Like a Sociologist

Consider the photo below of a person being interviewed for a job.

image of woman interviewing man

Creative Commons – www.amtec.us.com

Can you use Goffman’s theory to analyze what you see?


These strategies and tips are probably more familiar to college students from wealthy backgrounds than to working-class people who have not gone to college. Sociologists emphasize the importance of cultural capital, or attitudes, skills, and knowledge that enable people to achieve a higher social status (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1990). People who grow up in poverty or near-poverty, including disproportionate numbers of people of color, are less likely than those who grow up in much wealthier circumstances to possess cultural capital. The attitudes, skills, and knowledge that many college students have and take for granted, including how to conduct oneself during a job interview, are much less familiar to individuals who grow up without cultural capital. To use some sociological language, they know much less about how to manage their impressions during a job interview should they get one and thus are less likely to be hired after an interview. For this reason, many public and private agencies in poor and working-class communities around the country regularly hold workshops on job interviewing skills. Much of what the youth and adults who attend these workshops and other programs are learning is impression management skills that help them find employment.

Test Yourself


Section 4.5 References

Bourdieu, P. and J. C. Passeron.  (1990). Reproduction in education, society and culture. Newbury Park, CA: Sage. 

Cooley, C. H. (1902). Social organization. New York, NY: Scribner’s. 

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

Turner, J. H. and J. E. Stets.  (2006). Sociological theories of human emotions. Annual Review of Sociology, 32, 25–52. 

Van Iddekinge, C. H., L. A. McFarland and P. H. Raymark. (2007). Antecedents of impression management use and effectiveness in a structured interview. Journal of Management, 33, 752–773.

YouTube. (2015, September 10). Dramaturgy (dramaturgical analysis). YouTube. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Qe5TI__ZDU.

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