What Are Agents Of Socialization?

By Charlotte Nickerson, published July 11, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


Agents of socialization are the people, groups, and social institutions that affect one's self-concept, attitudes, and behaviors. For example, parents, teachers, priests, television personalities, rock stars and so forth.

Primary agents of socialization include people whom we have a close intimate relationship, such as parents, and usually occur when people are very young.

Agents of secondary socialization include secondary relationship (not close, personal or intimate) and function to "Liberate the individual from a dependence upon the primary attachments and relationships formed within the family group" (Parsons, 1951).

The family is usually considered the primary agent of socialization, and schools, peer groups, and the mass media are considered secondary socialization agencies.

Agents of socialization teach people what society expects of them. They tell them what is right and wrong, and they give them the skills they need to function as members of their culture.

What is Socialization?

Socialization is the process of learning the norms and customs of a society. It is through socialization that people learn how to behave in a way that is acceptable to their culture.

Socialization also helps to ensure that members of a society know and understand the rules that they are expected to follow, so that they can function effectively in society or within a particular group (Ochs, 1999).

The process of socialization can happen throughout one's life, but it is most intense during childhood and adolescence, when people are learning about their roles and how to interact with others.

Adult socialization may occur when people find themselves in new circumstances, especially when they are in a culture with norms and customs that differ from theirs.

There are several agents of socialization that play a role in shaping a person's identity, including family, media, religion, schools, and peer groups (Ochs, 1999).

The Purpose of Socialization

The purpose of socialization is to teach people the norms and customs of their culture so that they can function within it.

Norms are the rules that dictate how people are expected to behave in a given situation. Customs, meanwhile, are the traditional practices of a culture, such as its values, beliefs, and rituals (Ochs, 1999).

Socialization also helps to instill a sense of social control within members of a society, so that they conform to its rules and regulations.

Social control is the process by which a society tries to ensure that its members behave in an acceptable way. It can be done through punishments, rewards, or simply by teaching people what is expected of them. In some cases, social control is necessary to maintain order and prevent chaos.

In other cases, it may be used to protect the interests of those in power or to promote a certain ideology (Ochs, 1999).

We normally refer to the people responsible for our socialisation as agents of socialisation and, by extension, we can also talk about agencies of socialisation (such as our family, the education system, the media and so forth).

1. Family

Family members can include parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. The family is the first and most important agent of socialization for children.

It is through families that people learn about culture and how to behave in a way that is acceptable to society. Families also teach people about language and communication, how to relate to others, and how the world works.

For example, families teach their children the difference between strangers and friends and what is real and imagined (Kinsbury & Scanzoni, 2009). Race, social class, religion, and other societal factors influence the experiences of families and, as a result, the socialization of children.

Families from some cultures may socialize for obedience and conformity while those from others may do so for creativity and individualism. Families from different social classes may have different lifestyles and provide their children with different opportunities for learning.

Gender norms, perceptions of race, and class-related behaviors also influence family socialization. For example, countries that provide paternity leave and accept stay-at-home fathers in the social landscape are more likely to socialize male children to be more willing to care for children when they are adults (Kinsbury & Scanzoni, 2009).

2. Schools

Schools are important secondary agent of socialization. Most students spend most of the day at school, immersing themselves in both academic subjects and behaviors like teamwork, following a schedule, and using textbooks (Durkheim, 1898).

These school rituals reinforce what society expects from children. As Bowles and Gintis (1976) discuss, schools in much of the US and Western Europe instill a sense of competition into the way grades are awarded and the way teachers evaluate students.

By participating in a race or math contest, children learn that in order to succeed, they must be better than others. This is an important value in capitalist societies, where people are expected to strive for personal gain.

In contrast, schools may also place more emphasis on working together and cooperating with others, as this is seen as a way to achieve the collective good.

Alternatively, in countries like Japan, children are expected to conform to group norms and not question teachers. The type of school a child attends also shapes their socialization. For example, children who attend private schools are more likely to have parents who are wealthy and well-educated.

As a result, these children learn different values and beliefs than those who attend public school. Nonetheless, schools everywhere teach children the essential features of their societies and how to cope with bureaucracy, rules, expectations, waiting their turn, and sitting still for hours during the day (Bowles & Gintis, 1976).

3. Community / Neighborhood

Communities or neighborhoods consist of a group of people living in the same geographic area under common laws or groups of people sharing fellowship, a friendly association, and common interests.

The community is a socializing agent because it is where children learn the role expectations for adults as well as themselves. The community provides a sense of identity to individuals and helps to define what is right or wrong.

Children can acquire this socialization by modeling adults, having rules enforced on them, or experiencing consequences for their behavior (Putnam, 2000).

It also teaches children how to interact with people who are different from them in terms of race, ethnicity, social class, and religion. For example, children learn that it is polite to speak quietly in the library, but they can be loud when they are playing with friends at the park.

The community also offers opportunities for children to explore their interests and talents. For example, some communities have youth clubs, sports teams, and scouting groups. These activities allow children to try new things, make friends, and develop a sense of responsibility (Putnam, 2000).

4. Peers

People learn from their peers (the people of their own age and similar social status) how to dress, talk, and behave. People also learn about what is important to one's peer group and what is not.

During adolescence, peers become even more important as agents of socialization. This is because adolescents are exploring their identities and trying to figure out who they are and where they fit in the world.

Peers provide support and guidance during this time, and help people learn about the norms and values of their culture — as well as what to wear, eat, watch, and where to spend time.

On the downside, adolescent peer influences have been seen as responsible for underage drinking, drug use, delinquency, and hate crimes (Agnew, 2015).

During peoples’ 20s and 30s, peer groups tend to diminish in importance. This is because people are more likely to be working and have less free time. In addition, people are more likely to be married or in a committed relationship.

As a result, they are less likely to spend time with friends and more likely to socialize within their families.

However, parents with young children may broaden their peer groups further and accept more influence, as they reach out to their surrounding communities to care for their children (Vandall, 2000).

5. Mass Media

The media works by providing information to a wide audience via television, newspapers, radio, and the Internet. This broad dissemination of information greatly influences social norms (Roberts, Foehr, and Rideout 2005).

The media teaches people about material objects, current events, and fashion, but also enforces nonmaterial culture: beliefs, values, and norms. It also teaches people how to think about and react to political events, such as elections.

In addition, it provides information about what is happening in other parts of the world, how people in other cultures live, and how people from a particular society should perceive the way that others live.

6. Religion

Religions can be both formal and informal institutions, any is an important avenue of socialization for many people.

Synagogues, temples, churches, mosques, and similar religious communities teach participants how to interact with their religioon's material culture — for example, the mezuzah, a prayer rug, or a communion wafer.

The ceremonies upheld by religion can often relate to family structure — like marriage and birth rituals, and religious institutions can reinforce gender norms through socialization. This reinforces the family unit's power dynamics and fosters a shared set of values transmitted through the rest of society (Pearson-Merkowitz & Gimpel, 2009).

Historically, religious institutions have played a significant role in social change. For example, the civil rights movement in the United States was led by religious leaders such as Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Similarly, the women's suffrage movement was also partly motivated by religious beliefs.

Today, religion continues to shape people's socialization experiences. For instance, some religions encourage members to protest wars and volunteer to help the poor. In all of these cases, religious institutions socialize people to behave in a way that favors once vulnerable groups (Pearson-Merkowitz & Gimpel, 2009).

7. Government

The government is another agent of socialization. It enacts laws that uphold social norms and values, and it also provides institutions and services that support citizens.

Government is notable in that it can fund a number of institutions that encourage socialization. For example, the government funds public schools, which play a key role in children's socialization.

The government also funds other programs that provide opportunities for social interaction, such as after-school programs, parks, and recreation centers (Oberfield, 2014). The military is another example of how the government can influence people's socialization experiences.

For instance, the military teaches people how to work together in a hierarchy, follow orders, and use violence to achieve objectives. People who serve in the military often come from different backgrounds and have different values. As a result, the military can be an agent for socializing people to collaborate with those from disparate races and classes against a common opponent (Oberfield, 2014).

The government can also create roles through legislation. For example, governments usually define an “adult” as being at least eighteen years old, the age at which a person becomes legally responsible for themselves.

Meanwhile, 65 brings the onset of "old age," as seniors become eligible for benefits. These roles motivate people to be socialized into a different category, learning to conform to both the government's and broader society's expectations of age (Oberfield, 2014).

Other Agents of Socialization (Ethnicity and class)

Ethnic socialization is the process by which people learn about their ethnic group's culture and history. It is a type of socialization that occurs within ethnic groups.

Ethnic socialization helps prepare children for the challenges and opportunities they will face as members of an ethnic group. It also helps them develop a positive sense of self and a strong sense of identity.

It can also lead to the acquisition of patterns of speech, beliefs, perceptions, and attitudes of an ethnic group by an individual, who comes to see themselves come to see themselves and others as members of that group.

Both parents and peers are primary ethnic socialization agents, but agents as large as the media and the wider community also play a role (Conger & Dogan, 2007).

Class socialization is the process by which people learn about their social class and how to behave in a way that is appropriate for their class. It is a type of socialization that occurs within social classes.

Like ethnic socialization, class socialization helps prepare children for the challenges and opportunities they will face as members of a social class.

Children who undergo class socialization learn to discern other members of their social class as well as develop attitudes of trust and mistrust toward those from other social groups (Conger & Dogan, 2007).

What is the Difference Between Socialization and Enculturation?

Enculturation is a process by which people learn the customs and traditions of their culture. Socialization, on the other hand, is the process by which people learn the norms and values of their society.

While socialization is the process of learning socially acceptable behavior in every culture, enculturation is the process of socialization in a particular culture. That is to say, enculturation is a product of socialization (Cromdal, 2006).

What is the difference between culture and socialization?

Culture is the unique set of beliefs, values, customs, and knowledge of a group of people. Socialization is the process by which people learn the norms and values of their culture. Culture is passed down from generation to generation through socialization (Cromdal, 2006).

One way to think about the difference between culture and socialization is that culture is what people believe, and socialization is how those beliefs are transmitted.

For example, American culture is often classified as highly individualistic. Individualism is the idea that each person is responsible for themselves. This belief is passed down through socialization experiences such as parents teaching their children to be independent.

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a member of the Class of 2024 at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archaeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Nickerson, C. (2022, July 11). What Are The Agents Of Socialization? Simply Sociology. https://simplysociology.com/agents-of-socialization.html

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