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4.1: Socialization and Culture

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    Socialization is the process through which people are taught to be proficient members of a society. It describes the ways that people come to understand societal norms and expectations, to accept society’s beliefs, and to be aware of societal values. Socialization helps people learn to function successfully in their social worlds. How does the process of socialization occur? How do we come to adopt the beliefs, values, and norms that represent its nonmaterial culture? This learning takes place through interaction with various agents of socialization, like peer groups and families, plus both formal and informal social institutions.

    Socialization is critical both to individuals and to the societies in which they live. It illustrates how completely intertwined human beings and their social worlds are. First, it is through teaching culture to new members that a society perpetuates itself. If new generations of a society don’t learn its way of life, it ceases to exist. Whatever is distinctive about a culture must be transmitted to those who join it in order for a society to survive.

    Agents of Socialization

    Social groups often provide the first experiences of socialization. Families, and later peer groups, communicate expectations and reinforce norms. People first learn to use the tangible objects of material culture in these settings, as well as being introduced to the beliefs and values of society.

    Family is the first agent of socialization. Mothers and fathers, siblings and grandparents, plus members of an extended family, all teach a child what he or she needs to know. For example, they show the child how to use objects (such as clothes, computers, eating utensils, books, bikes); how to relate to others (some as “family,” others as “friends,” still others as “strangers” or “teachers” or “neighbors”); and how the world works (what is “real” and what is “imagined”). As you are aware, either from your own experience as a child or from your role in helping to raise one, socialization includes teaching and learning about an unending array of objects and ideas.

    Sociologists recognize that race, social class, religion, and other societal factors play an important role in socialization. For example, poor families usually emphasize obedience and conformity when raising their children, while wealthy families emphasize judgment and creativity (National Opinion Research Center, 2008). This may occur because working-class parents have less education and more repetitive-task jobs for which it is helpful to be able to follow rules and conform. Wealthy parents tend to have better educations and often work in managerial positions or careers that require creative problem solving, so they teach their children behaviors that are beneficial in these positions. This means children are effectively socialized and raised to take the types of jobs their parents already have, thus reproducing the class system (Kohn, 1977). Likewise, children are socialized to abide by gender norms, perceptions of race, and class-related behaviors.

    A peer group is made up of people who are similar in age and social status and who share interests. Peer group socialization begins in the earliest years, such as when kids on a playground teach younger children the norms about taking turns, the rules of a game, or how to shoot a basket. As children grow into teenagers, this process continues. Peer groups are important to adolescents in a new way, as they begin to develop an identity separate from their parents and exert independence. Additionally, peer groups provide their own opportunities for socialization since kids usually engage in different types of activities with their peers than they do with their families. Peer groups provide adolescents’ first major socialization experience outside the realm of their families. Interestingly, studies have shown that although friendships rank high in adolescents’ priorities, this is balanced by parental influence.

    The social institutions of our culture also inform our socialization. Formal institutions—like schools, workplaces, and the government—teach people how to behave in and navigate these systems. Other institutions, like the media, contribute to socialization by inundating us with messages about norms and expectations.

    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 & 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.

    Schools also socialize children by teaching them about citizenship and national pride. In the United States, children are taught to say the Pledge of Allegiance. Most districts require classes about U.S. history and geography. As academic understanding of history evolves, textbooks in the United States have been scrutinized and revised to update attitudes toward other cultures as well as perspectives on historical events; thus, children are socialized to a different national or world history than earlier textbooks may have done. For example, information about the mistreatment of African Americans and Native American Indians more accurately reflects those events than in textbooks of the past.

    Religion is an important avenue of socialization for many people. The United States is full of synagogues, temples, churches, mosques, and similar religious communities where people gather to worship and learn. Like other institutions, these places teach participants how to interact with the religion’s material culture (like a mezuzah, a prayer rug, or a communion wafer). For some people, important ceremonies related to family structure—like marriage and birth—are connected to religious celebrations. Many religious institutions also uphold gender norms and contribute to their enforcement through socialization. From ceremonial rites of passage that reinforce the family unit to power dynamics that reinforce gender roles, organized religion fosters a shared set of socialized values that are passed on through society.

    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, & 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).

    Socialization by Race and Ethnicity

    Racial-Ethnic Socialization

    Racial-ethnic socialization is defined as the processes by which children acquire the behaviors, perceptions, values, and attitudes of an ethnic group, and come to see themselves and others as members of the group.

    This section is licensed CC BY-SA. Attribution: Racial-Ethnic Socialization (Wikipedia) (CC BY-SA 3.0)

    The previously stated agents of socialization such as parents, mass media, and peers are significant teachers of how children see their own race or ethnicity - as well as how they view other groups and individuals. None of us are born racist, ethnocentric, or culturally competent. Racism is a learned trait.

    The American Psychological Association explains that racial socialization should be understood differently depending on the race of children:

    Parents of Black children, along with parents of other ethnically underrepresented youth, are tasked with teaching their children how to navigate, and sometimes even survive, a society that may give messages that undermine parents’ efforts. Parents often must counteract messages their youth receive from broader society including the media, and the judicial, educational and health systems, to name a few. The way in which parents teach their youth how to navigate the often contradictory messages or teach them what it means to be Black is called racial socialization (Gaskin, 2015).

    Though parents may tailor these messages to their children differently depending on a child's skin tone, gender, age, or sexual orientation, Gaskin (2015) identifies the following communication that parents may have with their children of color:

    1. Messages emphasizing pride in being Black or a person of color
    2. Warnings about racial inequalities
    3. Messages that de-emphasize the importance of race (sometimes called a “color-blind” approach) and instead may emphasize that hard work will ensure someone can overcome racism
    4. Mistrust of other ethnic groups
    5. Silence about race and racial issues

    White parents are generally unlikely to discuss race or racism for that matter in any direct fashion with their white children, but of some white families do have these discussions. More frequently, the norm for many white children is learning color-blindness, which sociologists identify as a form or racism (discussed in this Chapter 4.4) or white silence. Additionally, white racial socialization tends to be a process by which white youth "learn what it means to be white in a society that currently values whiteness" (Michael & Bartoli, 2014). With their focus on racial socialization provided by schools, Michael & Bartoli (2014) explain that schools should be educating children on the following: understanding systemic racism, learning how anti-racist action is relevant to all, and understanding stereotypes and their counternarratives (stories that counter the stereotypes). Ultimately, this learning would align with critical race analysis (see critical race theory in Chapter 2.2).

    As evidenced in Figure 4.1.1 below, many young white Americans were actively involved in the nationwide protests in the summer of 2020, in support of Black Lives Matter, representing a unique moment in U.S. history, a unique moment in the socialization of white Americans.

    Protester holding a sign White Silence Is Violence
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): "White Silence Is Violence." (CC BY 2.0; Tim Pierce via Flickr)

    Cultural Hierarchies

    Cultural distinctions make groups unique, but they also provide a social structure for creating and ranking cultures based on similarities or differences. A cultural group’s size and strength influences their power over a region, area, or other groups. Cultural power lends itself to social power that influences people’s lives by controlling the prevailing norms or rules and making individuals adhere to the dominant culture voluntarily or involuntarily.

    Culture is not a direct reflection of the social world (Griswold, 2013). Humans mediate culture to define meaning and interpret the social world around them. As a result, dominant groups are able to manipulate, reproduce, and influence culture among the masses. Common culture found in society is actually the selective transmission of elite-dominated values (Parenti, 2006). This practice known as cultural hegemony suggests, culture is not autonomous, it is conditionally dictated, regulated, and controlled by dominant groups. The major forces shaping culture are in the power of elite-dominated interests which make limited and marginal adjustments to appear as though culture is changing in alignment with evolving social values (Parenti, 2006). The culturally dominating group often sets the standard for living and governs the distribution of resources.

    Social and Cultural Capital

    Social and cultural relationships have productive benefits in society. Research defines social capital as a form of economic (e.g., money and property) and cultural (e.g., norms, fellowship, trust) assets central to a social network (Putnam, 2000). The social networks people create and maintain with each other enable society to function. However, the work of Pierre Bourdieu (1972) found social capital produces and reproduces inequality when examining how people gain powerful positions through direct and indirect social connections. Social capital or a social network can help or hinder someone personally and socially. For example, strong and supportive social connections can facilitate job opportunities and promotions that are beneficial to the individual and their social network. Weak and unsupportive social ties can jeopardize employment or advancement that are harmful to the individual and social group as well. People make cultural objects meaningful (Griswold, 2013). Interactions and reasoning develop cultural perspectives and understanding. The “social mind” of groups process incoming signals influencing culture within the social structure including the social attributes and status of members in a society (Zerubavel, 1999). Language and symbols express a person’s position in society and the expectations associated with their status. For example, the clothes people wear or car they drive represents style, fashion, and wealth. Owning designer clothing or a high performance sports car depicts a person’s access to financial resources and worth. The use of formal language and titles also represent social status such as salutations including your majesty, your highness, president, director, chief executive officer, and doctor.

    Picture of Pierre Bourdieu
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002). (CC PDM 1.0; Wikimedia).

    People may occupy multiple statuses in a society. At birth, people are ascribed social status in alignment to their physical and mental features, gender, and race. In some cases, societies differentiate status according to physical or mental disability as well as if a child is female or male, or a racial minority. According to Dr. Jody Heymann, Dean of the World Policy Analysis Center at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, "Persons with disabilities are one of the last groups whose equal rights have been recognized" around the world (Brink, 2016). A report by the World Policy Analysis Center (2016) shows only 28% of 193 countries participating in the global survey guarantee a right to quality education for people with disabilities and only 18% guarantee a right to work.

    In some societies, people may earn or achieve social status from their talents, efforts, or accomplishments (Griffiths, Keirns, Strayer, Cody-Rydzewsk, Scaramuzzo, Sadler, Vyain, Byer, & Jones, 2015). Obtaining higher education or being an artistic prodigy often correspond to high status. For example, a college degree awarded from an “Ivy League” university weighs higher in status than a degree from a public college. Similarly, talented artists, musicians, and athletes receive honors, privileges, and celebrity status.

    Additionally, the social and political hierarchy of a society or region designates social status. Consider the social labels within class, race, ethnicity, gender, education, profession, age, and family. Labels defining a person’s characteristics serve as their position within the larger group. People in a majority or dominant group have higher status (e.g., rich, white, male, physician, etc.) than those of the marginalized or subordinate group (e.g., poor, Black, female, housekeeper, etc.). Overall, the location of a person on the social strata influences their social power and participation (Griswold, 2013). Individuals with inferior power have limitations to social and physical resources including lack of authority, influence over others, formidable networks, capital, and money.

    Social status serves as method for building and maintaining boundaries among and between people and groups. Status dictates social inclusion or exclusion resulting in cultural stratification or hierarchy whereby a person’s position in society regulates their cultural participation by others. Cultural attributes within social networks build community, group loyalty, and personal and social identity.

    People sometimes engage in status shifting to garner acceptance or avoid attention. As discussed in Chapter 1.1, DuBois (1903) described the act of people looking through the eyes of others to measure social place or position as double consciousness. His research explored the history and cultural experiences of American slavery and the plight of Black folk in translating thinking and behavior between racial contexts. DuBois’ research helped sociologists understand how and why people display one identity in certain settings and another in different ones. People must negotiate a social situation to decide how to project their social identity and assign a label that fits (Kottak & Kozaitis, 2012). Status shifting is evident when people move from informal to formal contexts. Our cultural identity and practices are very different at home than at school, work, or church. Each setting demands different aspects of who we are and our place in the social setting.

    This short video summarizes Pierre Bourdieu's (1930-2002) theory of cultural capital as the cultural knowledge that serves as currency that helps us navigate culture and alters our experiences and the opportunities available to us. The video discusses three different forms of cultural capital: embodied state, objectified state, and institutionalized state with examples of each type that students can apply to their own lives. At the end of the video, discussion questions are included to assist students in applying the concept of cultural capital to what is happening in the world today.

    Video \(\PageIndex{3}\): According to Pierre Bourdieu, cultural capital is the cultural knowledge that serves as the currency that helps us navigate a culture and alters our experiences and the opportunities available to us. This theory focuses on the embodied, objectified and institutionalized states of capital and is significantly important in assisting us in understanding inequality in education and other social structures. (Close-captioning and other YouTube settings will appear once the video starts.) (CC BY-SA; Sociology Live! via YouTube)

    Sociologists find cultural capital or the social assets of person (including intellect, education, speech pattern, mannerisms, and dress) promote social mobility (Harper-Scott & Samson, 2009). People who accumulate and display the cultural knowledge of a society or group may earn social acceptance, status, and power. Bourdieau (1991) explained the accumulation and transmission of culture is a social investment from socializing agents including family, peers, and community. People learn culture and cultural characteristics and traits from one another; however, social status effects whether people share, spread, or communicate cultural knowledge to each other. A person’s social status in a group or society influences their ability to access and develop cultural capitol.

    Cultural capital provides people access to cultural connections such as institutions, individuals, materials, and economic resources (Kennedy, 2012). Status guides people in choosing who and when culture or cultural capital is transferable. Bourdieu (1991) believed cultural inheritance and personal biography contribute more to individual success than intelligence or talent. With status comes access to social and cultural capital that generates access to privileges and power among and between groups. Individuals with cultural capital deficits face social inequalities (Reay, 2004). If someone does not have the cultural knowledge and skills to maneuver the social world she or he occupies, then she or he will not find acceptance within a group or society and access to support and resources.

    Thinking Sociologically

    Cultural capital evaluates the validity of culture (i.e., language, values, norms, and access to material resources) on success and achievement. You can measure your cultural capital by examining the cultural traits and patterns of your life. The following questions examine student values and beliefs, parental and family support, residency status, language, childhood experiences focusing on access to cultural resources (e.g., books) and neighborhood vitality (e.g., employment opportunities), educational and professional influences, and barriers affecting college success (Kennedy, 2012).

    1. What are the most important values or beliefs influencing your life?
    2. What kind of support have you received from your parents or family regarding school and your education?
    3. How many generations has your family lived in the United States?
    4. What do you consider your primary language? Did you have any difficulty learning to read or write the English language?
    5. Did your family have more than fifty books in the house when you were growing up? What type of reading materials were in your house when you were growing up?
    6. Did your family ever go to art galleries, museums, or plays when you were a child? What types of activities did your family do with their time other than work and school?
    7. How would you describe the neighborhood where you grew up?
    8. What illegal activities, if any, were present in the neighborhood where you grew up?
    9. What employment opportunities were available to your parents or family in the neighborhood where you grew up?
    10. Do you have immediate family members who are doctors, lawyers, or other professionals? What types of jobs have your family members had throughout their lives?
    11. Why did you decide to go to college? What has influenced you to continue or complete your college education?
    12. Did anyone ever discourage or prevent you from pursuing academics or a professional career?
    13. Do you consider school easy or difficult for you?
    14. What has been the biggest obstacle for you in obtaining a college education?
    15. What has been the greatest opportunity for you in obtaining a college education?
    16. How did you learn to navigate educational environments? Who taught you the “ins” and “outs” of college or school?

    Cultural Hegemony

    The very nature of cultural creation and production requires an audience to receive a cultural idea or product. Without people willing to receive culture, it cannot be sustainable or become an object (Griswold, 2013). Power and influence play an integral part in cultural creation and marketing. The ruling class has the ability to establish cultural norms and manipulate society while turning a profit. Culture is a commodity and those in a position of power to create, produce, and distribute culture gain further social and economic power.

    Culture producing organizations such as multinational corporations and media industries are in the business of producing mass culture products for profit. These organizations have the power to influence people throughout the world. Paul Hirsch (1972) referred to this enterprise as the culture industry system or the “market.” In the culture industry system, multinational corporations and media industries (i.e., cultural creators) produce an excess supply of cultural objects to draw in public attention with the goal of flooding the market to ensure receipt and acceptance of at least one cultural idea or artifact by the people for monetary gain.

    The culture industry system produces mass culture products to generate a culture of consumption (Grazian, 2010). The production of mass culture thrives on the notion that culture influences people. In line with the humanities’ perspective on culture, multinational corporations and media industries, believe they have the ability to control and manipulate culture by creating objects or products that people want and desire. This viewpoint suggests cultural receivers, or the people, are weak, apathetic, and consume culture for recognition and social status (Griswold, 2013). If you consider the cultural object of buying and owning a home, the concept of owning a home represents attaining the “American dream.” Even though not all Americans are able to buy and own a home, the cultural industry system has embedded home ownership as a requisite to success and achievement in America.

    Street Lights of Times Square.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Street Lights of Times Square. (CC BY 4.0; Jose Francisco Fernandez Saura via Pexels)

    In contrast, popular culture implies people influence culture. This perspective indicates people are active makers in the creation and acceptance of cultural objects (Griswold, 2013). Take into account one of the most popular musical genres today, rap music. The creative use of language and rhetorical styles and strategies of rap music gained local popularity in New York during the 1970s and entered mainstream acceptance in mid-1980s to early ‘90s (Caramanica, 2005). The early developments of rap music by the masses led to the genre becoming a cultural object.

    Latinos are the largest and fastest growing ethnic group in the United States. The culture industry system is seeking ways to profit from this group. As multinational corporations and media industries produce cultural objects or products geared toward this population, their cultural identity is transformed into a new subculture blending American and Latinx values, beliefs, norms, and practices. Phillip Rodriguez is a documentary filmmaker on Latinx culture, history, and identity. He and many other race and diversity experts are exploring the influence of consumption on American Latinx culture.

    1. Research the products and advertisements targeting Latinos in the United States. Describe the cultural objects and messaging encouraging a culture of consumption among this group.
    2. What type of values, beliefs, norms, and practices are reinforced in the cultural objects or projects created by the culture industry system?
    3. How might the purchase or consumption of the cultural objects or products you researched influence the self-image, identity, and social status of Latinos?
    4. What new subculture arises by the blending of American and Latinx culture? Describe the impact of uniting or combining these cultures on Latinos and Americans.

    Today, rap music like other forms of music is being created and produced by major music labels and related media industries. The culture industry system uses media gatekeepers to regulate information including culture (Grazian, 2010). Even with the ability of the people to create popular culture, multinational corporations and media industries maintain power to spread awareness, control access, and messaging. This power to influence the masses also gives the hegemonic ruling class, known as the culture industry system, the ability to reinforce stereotypes, close minds, and promote fear to encourage acceptance or rejection of certain cultural ideas and artifacts.

    Contributors and Attributions

    Content on this page has multiple licenses. Everything is CC BY-NC-SA other than Racial-Ethnic Socialization which is CC BY-SA.

    Works Cited

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