Theories of Socialization

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe psychological and sociological theories of socialization

Theories of Socialization

When we are born, we have a genetic makeup and biological traits. However, who we are as human beings–our identity–develops through social interaction. Many scholars, both in the fields of psychology and in sociology, have described the process of self-development as a precursor to understanding how that “self” becomes socialized.

Psychological Perspectives on Self-Development

Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) was one of the most influential modern scientists to put forth a theory about how people develop a sense of self. He divided the maturation process into stages, and posited that people’s self-development is closely linked to their early stages of development. According to Freud, failure to properly engage in or disengage from a specific stage results in emotional and psychological consequences throughout adulthood.

Psychologist Erik Erikson (1902–1994) created a theory of personality development based, in part, on the work of Freud. However, Erikson believed the personality continued to change over time and was never truly finished. His theory includes eight stages of development, beginning with birth and ending with death. According to Erikson, people move through these stages throughout their lives. In contrast to Freud’s focus on psychosexual stages and basic human urges, Erikson’s view of self-development gave credit to more social aspects, like the way we negotiate between our own base desires and what is socially accepted (Erikson 1982).

Jean Piaget (1896–1980) was a Swiss psychologist who specialized in child development, focusing specifically on the role of developmental social interactions. He recognized that the development of self evolved through a negotiation between the world as it exists in one’s mind and the world that exists as it is experienced socially (Piaget 1954). All three of these thinkers have contributed to our modern understanding of self-development.

Lawrence Kohlberg (1927–1987) was interested in how people learn to decide what is right and what is wrong. To understand this topic, he developed a theory of moral development that includes three levels: preconventional, conventional, and postconventional. Morality generally refers to the way people learn what society considers to be “good” and “bad,” which is important for a smoothly functioning society. In the preconventional stage, young children, who lack a higher level of cognitive ability, experience the world around them only through their senses. As teenagers, there is increasing awareness of others’ feelings, and teens begin to take those into consideration when determining what’s “good” and “bad.” The final stage, called postconventional, is when people begin to think of morality in more complex, abstract terms, such as Americans believing that everyone has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. At this stage, people also recognize that legality and morality do not always match up evenly (Kohlberg 1981).

Psychologist Carol Gilligan (1936–), recognized that Kohlberg’s theory might show gender bias since his research was only conducted on male subjects, so she set out to study differences between how boys and girls developed morality. Gilligan’s research demonstrated that boys and girls do, in fact, have different understandings of morality. Boys tend to have a justice perspective, by placing emphasis on rules and laws. Girls, on the other hand, have a care and responsibility perspective, and they are more likely to consider a personal rationale for behavior that seems morally wrong. Gilligan also recognized that Kohlberg’s theory rested on the assumption that the justice perspective was the right, or better, perspective. Gilligan, in contrast, theorized that neither perspective was “better,” and that the two norms of justice served different purposes. Ultimately, she explained that boys are socialized for a work environment where rules make operations run smoothly, while girls are socialized for a home environment where flexibility allows for harmony in caretaking and nurturing (Gilligan 1982; Gilligan 1990).

Effects of Isolation AND lack of Socialization

A family group of rhesus monkeys are shown sitting and grooming each other on rocky ground.

Figure 1. Baby rhesus monkeys, like humans, need to be raised with social contact for healthy development. (Photo courtesy of Paul Asman and Jill Lenoble/flickr)

The necessity for early social contact was demonstrated by the research of Harry and Margaret Harlow. From 1957 to 1963, the Harlows conducted a series of experiments studying how rhesus monkeys, which behave a lot like people, are affected by isolation as babies. They studied monkeys raised under two types of “substitute” mothering circumstances: a mesh and wire sculpture, or a soft terrycloth “mother.” The monkeys systematically preferred the company of a soft, terrycloth substitute mother (closely resembling a rhesus monkey) that was unable to feed them, to a mesh and wire mother that provided sustenance via a feeding tube. This demonstrated that while food was important, social comfort was of greater value (Harlow and Harlow 1962; Harlow 1971). Later experiments testing more severe isolation revealed that such deprivation of social contact led to significant developmental and social challenges later in life, as shown in the example of Danielle, introduced below.

In the summer of 2005, police detective Mark Holste followed an investigator from the Department of Children and Families to a home in Plant City, Florida. They were there to look into a statement from the neighbor concerning a shabby house on Old Sydney Road. A small girl was reported peering from one of its broken windows. This seemed odd because no one in the neighborhood had seen a young child in or around the home, which had been inhabited for the past three years by a woman, her boyfriend, and two adult sons.

Who was the mystery girl in the window?

Entering the house, Detective Holste and his team were shocked. It was the worst mess they’d ever seen, infested with cockroaches, smeared with feces and urine from both people and pets, and filled with dilapidated furniture and ragged window coverings.

Detective Holste headed down a hallway and entered a small room. That’s where he found the little girl, with big, vacant eyes, staring into the darkness. A newspaper report later described the detective’s first encounter with the child: “She lay on a torn, moldy mattress on the floor. She was curled on her side . . . her ribs and collarbone jutted out . . . her black hair was matted, crawling with lice. Insect bites, rashes and sores pocked her skin . . . She was naked—except for a swollen diaper. … Her name, her mother said, was Danielle. She was almost seven years old” (DeGregory 2008).

Detective Holste immediately carried Danielle out of the home. She was taken to a hospital for medical treatment and evaluation. Through extensive testing, doctors determined that, although she was severely malnourished, Danielle was able to see, hear, and vocalize normally. Still, she wouldn’t look anyone in the eyes, didn’t know how to chew or swallow solid food, didn’t cry, didn’t respond to stimuli that would typically cause pain, and didn’t know how to communicate either with words or simple gestures such as nodding “yes” or “no.” Likewise, although tests showed she had no chronic diseases or genetic abnormalities, the only way she could stand was with someone holding onto her hands, and she “walked sideways on her toes, like a crab” (DeGregory 2008).

What had happened to Danielle? Put simply: beyond the basic requirements for survival, she had been neglected. Based on their investigation, social workers concluded that she had been left almost entirely alone in rooms like the one where she was found. Without regular interaction—the holding, hugging, talking, the explanations and demonstrations given to most young children—she had not learned to walk or to speak, to eat or to interact, to play or even to understand the world around her. From a sociological point of view, Danielle had not been socialized.

Try It

Sociological Perspectives on Self-Development

One of the pioneering contributors to sociological perspectives on self-development was Charles Cooley (1864–1929). He asserted that one’s self understanding is constructed, in part, by our perception of how others view us—a process termed “the looking glass self” (Cooley 1902), which was discussed when we first introduced symbolic interactionism. This concept is central to sociological perspectives on self-development because it demonstrates the importance of social interaction in the development of one’s identity.

Later, George Herbert Mead (1863–1931) studied the self, a person’s distinct identity as developed through social interaction. In order to engage in this process of “self,” an individual has to be able to view him or herself through the eyes of others. This is not an ability that is innate (Mead 1934). Through socialization we learn to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and look at the world through their perspective. This assists us in becoming self-aware, as we look at ourselves from the perspective of the “other.” The case of Danielle, for example, illustrates what happens when social interaction is absent from early experience. Recall that Danielle had no ability to see herself as others would see her. From Mead’s point of view, she had no socially informed “self.”

How do we go from being newborns to being humans with “selves?” Mead believed that there is a specific path of development that all people go through. During the preparatory stage, children are only capable of imitation; they have no ability to imagine how others see things. They copy the actions of people with whom they regularly interact, such as their mothers and fathers. This is followed by the play stage, during which children begin to take on the role that one other person might have. Thus, children might try on a parent’s point of view by acting out “grownup” behavior, like playing “dress up” and acting out the “mom” role, or talking on a toy telephone the way they see their father do.

During the game stage, children learn to consider several roles at the same time and how those roles interact with each other. They learn to understand interactions involving different people with a variety of purposes. For example, a child at this stage is likely to be aware of the different responsibilities of people in a restaurant who together make for a smooth dining experience (e.g., someone seats you, another takes your order, someone else cooks the food, while yet another clears away dirty dishes).

Finally, children develop, understand, and learn the idea of the generalized other, the common behavioral expectations of general society. By this stage of development, an individual is able to imagine how he or she is viewed by one or many others—and thus, from a sociological perspective, to have a “self” (Mead 1934; Mead 1964).

Watch it

Learn more about Mead’s theory on the self and how self-identity develops in this Khan Academy video.

Psychological and Sociological Theories of Socialization

As you have learned, both psychologists and sociologists have theories about socialization and the influences that make you you. The two disciplines differ, however, in that psychological theories tend to focus on internal processes and the mind, while sociologists focus on external influences, interactions, and society.

Psychological Theories of Socialization Sociological Theories of Socialization 
Focus is how the mind influences human behavior Focus is the role of society in shaping behavior
Psychologists tend to look inward (mental health, emotional processes) to understand human behavior Sociologists tend to look outward (social institutions, cultural norms, interactions with others) to understand human behavior
Key psychological contributions by Sigmund Freud Key sociological contributions by George Herbert Mead

Think It Over

Imagine conducting research on first kisses.

The viral video First Kiss was a clothing advertisement with models, actors, and musicians paid to kiss a stranger. Images of beautiful strangers kissing to a soundtrack of trendy music reinforces cultural ideals about what a first kiss means, and provide ample material for sociological theorization.

A sociologist would likely examine cultural norms for dating, religious beliefs, age, gender, sexual orientation, historical patterns for a first kiss, and society (including geographic location). Romantic love was not part of any society until the 18th Century. Prior to that, marriage was primarily a political and economic arrangement within which love and desire were not considerations, thought they could potentially evolve as part of the union.

A recent study of the first kiss by psychologists at the University of Connecticut examined the reflection of personality (i.e., introvert or extrovert), internal and external motivations, psychosocial qualities of identity and intimacy, and additional factors such as the family’s religious background, self-esteem, use of alcohol, academic experiences, body image, and body size (Lefkowitz et. al. 2018).

Sociologists and psychologists have sometimes collaborated to increase knowledge, and the disciplinary subfields of both social psychology and bio-sociological research offer some overlapping perspectives. However, generally speaking the focus on internal (psychology) and external (sociology) elements remain the fundamental orientations for each discipline. Both disciplines make valuable contributions through different approaches, and provide us with a diverse range of useful insights.


generalized other:
the common behavioral expectations of general society
moral development:
a person’s distinct sense of identity as developed through social interaction
a person’s distinct sense of identity as developed through social interaction
the process wherein people come to understand societal norms and expectations, accept society’s beliefs, and become aware of societal values