Theories of socialisation
There are three approaches to socialisation; they all contribute different understandings of socialisation:
Psychoanalytic theory (S. Freud)
Freud focused on the unconscious mind and how emotions drive people towards particular actions and behaviours, primarily the desire for pleasurable experiences and sexual gratification. He asserted the conscious mind, otherwise known as the ego, is dominated by attempts to control such unconscious drives.
As for socialisation, psychoanalytic theory states the first few years are crucial for the formation of ‘self’. A sense of morality is gradually internalised and becomes part of the conscious mind, called the ‘superego’.
Psychoanalysis looks at the relationship between the surface structure of consciousness and the deeper, inner structure of the unconscious, much of the early psychoanalytical theory emphasised the biological bases of emotions and the ways in which people learn to try to control their natural tendencies. Later psychoanalysts broadened this perspective and recognised the cultural origin of these unconscious drives
Sigmund Freud argued that the core elements of the personality are formed during childhood, the first few years of life develops a sense of self, morality and conscious orientation to the world. Parental prohibitions and punishments are gradually internalised by the child as knowledge of right and wrong in their conscience. There are several studies looking at how parents and teachers can instil expected codes of behaviour in children, Thorndike and Pavlov are the first two who come to mind but their thoughts are for another time and post.
Role-learning theory (structural-functionalist approach)
A structural-functionalist approach which stresses the importance of learning the norms that make up role expectations. It rejects biological reductionism and states social roles are blueprints for action learned through interaction; systems of rewards and punishments induce conformity to role expectations. This process of internalisation guarantees the maintenance of conformity over time.
Social roles are treated as social facts as determined by Durkheim: they are seen as institutionalised social relationships; matters of constraint rather than choice e.g. people aren’t free to renegotiate what it is to be a doctor, teacher, mother, or father.
Conformity to role expectations is a result of external pressure through the rewards and punishments that people apply to each others behaviour. Role-learning theory emphasises a process of role-taking: it sees people as taking on culturally given roles and acting them out in a mechanical way. People’s actions are seen as almost completely determined by the cultural definitions and expectations that they have learned through socialisation.
Symbolic interactionism (C.H. Cooley, G. H. Mead, E. Goffman)
Focuses on the formation of self through social interaction; role-playing as a creative process (not just enacting things learned during socialisation). It originated in the social psychology of William James and was developed in its classic form by George Herbert Mead at the University of Chicago. Herbert Blumer then coined the name symbolic interactionism to distinguish it from mainstream structural-functionalist sociology.
Symbolic interactionism places strong emphasis on the roles of symbols (gestures and objects) and language as core elements of all human interaction. It sees society as a set of fluid and flexible networks of interactions and their consequences within which we act. Socialisation involves a more active role of individuals.
Charles Horton Cooley
Developed the hypothesis that we learn who we are by interacting with others; our view of ourselves comes from our impressions of how others perceive us. Cooley used the phrase “looking-glass self” to emphasise that the self is the product of our social interactions with other people; just like the reflections from a mirror, the self depends on the perceived responses of others.
The process of developing a self-identity of self-concept has three phases:
- First we imagine how we present ourselves to others
- Then we imagine how others evaluate us (attractive, intelligent, shy or strange)
- Finally, we develop some sort of feeling about ourselves, such as, respect or shame
George Herbert Mead
Is best known for his theory of the self, according to Mead the self begins at a privileged, central position in a person’s world. Young children picture themselves as the focus of everything around them and find it difficult to consider the perspectives of others. This childhood tendency to place ourselves at the centre of events never entirely disappears. As people mature the self changes and begins to reflect greater concern about the reactions of others.
In Mead’s terminology there are two aspects of the self: the ‘I’ and the ‘Me’. The ‘I’ is the source of action, but other people observe and react towards the ‘Me’. The ‘Me’ is the social self, constructed through interactions with others and reflecting the attitudes that they adopt. The social self develops at the age of 4 or 5. At 8 or 9 children begin to take on the attitude of what Mead calls the generalised other, they begin to infer the common or widely held values of their society by generalising from particular adults to society in general. They begin to consider how other people in general within their society might react to particular kinds of actions. The attitudes of the generalised others become the voice of their moral conscious.
This theory took several readings but eventually it made sense – sort of.
How do we manage our self? How do we display to others who we are?
Goffman suggested that many (if not all) of our daily activities involve attempts to convey impressions of who we are. His observations help to understand how we learn to present ourselves socially.
- Impression management (1959) à Early in life individuals learn to manage their presentation of the self to create distinct appearances and satisfy particular audiences.
- Dramaturgical model à Goffman makes so many parallels to the theatre that his view has been termed the dramaturgical approach. According to the perspective, people resemble performers in action e.g. a clerk may try to appear busier if a supervisor happens to be watching
- Face work à how often do we initiate face-saving behaviour because of embarrassment or rejection? We need to maintain a proper image of the self if we are to continue social interaction
Goffman’s work of the self represents a logical progression of the sociological studies begun by Cooley and Mead on how a sense of self-identity is acquired through socialisation and how we manage the presentation of self to others. Cooley stressed the process by which we come to create a self; Mead focused on how the self develops as we learn to interact with others, Goffman emphasised the ways in which we consciously create images of ourselves to others.
Do any of these theories or approaches ring true for you? Personally, I see a few elements which are relatable such as Cooley’s realisation that our perceptions of ourselves can depend on the opinions of others and the role-learning theory stating that the definition of ‘doctor’ or ‘mother’ are more or less stable in Western culture.