What are the Four Major Agents of Socialization
Producing offspring is not the only function of the family. Marriage sometimes establishes the legal father of a woman’s child; establishes the legal mother of a man’s child; gives the husband or his family control over the wife’s sexual services, labor, and/or property; gives the wife or her family control over the husband’s sexual services, labor, and/or property; establishes a joint fund of property for the benefit of children; establishes a relationship between the families of the husband and wife. None of these functions are universal, nor are all of them inherent to any one society. In societies with a sexual division of labor, marriage, and the resulting relationship between a husband and wife, is necessary for the formation of an economically productive household. In modern societies, marriage entails particular rights and privileges which encourage the formation of new families even when there is no intention of having children.
How do we learn to interact with other people? Socialization is a lifelong process during which we learn about social expectations and how to interact with other people. Nearly all of the behavior that we consider to be ‘human nature’ is actually learned through socialization. And, it is during socialization that we learn how to walk, talk, and feed ourselves, about behavioral norms that help us fit in to our society, and so much more.
Socialization occurs throughout our life, but some of the most important socialization occurs in childhood. So, let’s talk about the most influential agents of socialization. These are the people or groups responsible for our socialization during childhood – including family, school, peers, and mass media.
The Four Major Agents of Socialization
There is no better way to start than to talk about the role of family in our social development, as family is usually considered to be the most important agent of socialization. As infants, we are completely dependent on others to survive. Our parents, or those who play the parent role, are responsible for teaching us to function and care for ourselves. They, along with the rest of our family, also teach us about close relationships, group life, and how to share resources. Additionally, they provide us with our first system of values, norms, and beliefs – a system that is usually a reflection of their own social status, religion, ethnic group, and more.
For example, Alexander, a young boy who lives in America, was born to an immigrant family. He grew up bilingual and was taught the importance of collectivistic values through socialization with his family. This experience differs drastically from someone born to an older, ‘traditional’ American family that would emphasize the English language and individualistic values.
Keep in mind, however, that families do not socialize children in a vacuum. Many social factors affect the way a family raises its children. For example, we can use sociological imagination to recognize that individual behaviors are affected by the historical period in which they take place. Sixty years ago, it would not have been considered especially strict for a father to hit his son with a wooden spoon or a belt if he misbehaved, but today that same action might be considered child abuse.
The next important agent of childhood socialization is the school. Of course, the official purpose of school is to transfer subject knowledge and teach life skills, such as following directions and meeting deadlines. But, students don’t just learn from the academic curriculum prepared by teachers and school administrators. In school, we also learn social skills through our interactions with teachers, staff, and other students. For example, we learn the importance of obeying authority and that to be successful, we must learn to be quiet, to wait, and sometimes to act interested even when we’re not.
Alexander, like other children, might even learn things from his teacher that she did not intend to teach. For instance, he might learn that it’s best to yell out an answer instead of raising his hand. When he does so, he gets rare attention from the teacher and is hardly ever punished.
School and classroom rituals, led by teachers serving as role models and leaders, regularly reinforce what society expects from children. Sociologists describe this aspect of schools as the hidden curriculum, the informal teaching done by schools.
For example, in the United States, schools have built a sense of competition into the way grades are awarded and the way teachers evaluate students (Bowles and Gintis 1976). When children participate in a relay race or a math contest, they learn there are winners and losers in society. When children are required to work together on a project, they practice teamwork with other people in cooperative situations. The hidden curriculum prepares children for the adult world. Children learn how to deal with bureaucracy, rules, expectations, waiting their turn, and sitting still for hours during the day. Schools in different cultures socialize children differently in order to prepare them to function well in those cultures. The latent functions of teamwork and dealing with bureaucracy are features of U.S. culture.
Another agent of socialization that relates to school is our peer group. Unlike the agents we’ve already discussed – family and school – peer groups give us an opportunity as children to form relationships with others on our own terms, plus learn things without the direction of an adult. Our peers have an incredible amount of influence on us when we’re young, so it’s understandable that parents worry about the type of friends we choose. Often, we discuss topics and learn behavioral norms from our peers that our parents do not or would not approve of.
Mass media distribute impersonal information to a wide audience, via television, newspapers, radio, and the Internet. With the average person spending over four hours a day in front of the television (and children averaging even more screen time), media greatly influences social norms (Roberts, Foehr, and Rideout 2005). People learn about objects of material culture (like new technology and transportation options), as well as nonmaterial culture—what is true (beliefs), what is important (values), and what is expected (norms).