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Socialization: Definition and Theories


Socialization serves as a kind of connecting bridge between two such dissimilar phenomena – personality and society. There is an extraordinary variety of theoretical approaches to socialization in social sciences, and each scientific school offers its approach. This paper analyzes the concepts of socialization and resocialization and particularly focuses on the theories of socialization by Margaret Mead, Sigmund Freud, Eric Erickson, Jean Piaget, and Lawrence Kohlberg. It also aims at outlining the common and distinct features of each of the theories under consideration.

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The Concepts of Socialization and Resocialization

Socialization can be defined as the process of assimilation and active reproduction of cultural experience by an individual (social norms, values, patterns of behavior, roles, attitudes, customs, cultural traditions, collective ideas, and beliefs). At the individual level, socialization is a lifelong process of cultural norms and social roles learning. In the Oxford Dictionary of Sociology on Socialization, Gordon Marshall (2015) puts it this way: “Socialization is the process by which we learn to become members of society, both by internalizing the norms and values” (para.1). The social role includes many cultural norms, rules, and stereotypes of behavior.

Socialization agents are specific people responsible for teaching cultural norms and social roles. In contrast, institutions of socialization influence and guide the process of socialization (Ferris & Stein, 2018). The socialization process is divided into two types – primary and secondary. Depending on the type of socialization, agents and institutions are distinguished correspondingly. In the first half of their life, individuals go through primary socialization mainly. Secondary socialization covers the second half of a person’s life, when, having matured, they are faced with formal organizations and institutions called institutions of secondary socialization. The latter include the state, the media, the army, the court, the church.

Resocialization means the replacement of old patterns of behavior and attitudes with new ones as a person moves from one stage of the life cycle to another. In other words, resocialization is the process of re-passing socialization, which implies a radical break with experience, values, conditions, and way of life, the assimilation of completely new norms and values. As Goffman (1961) argued, the resocialization process is inherent to all total institutions (as cited in Zittoun, 2016). Typical conditions for resocialization are isolation from the surrounding society, absolute power of the authorities, restriction of the individual in the rights of free movement and expression of will, powerlessness, and humiliation of the situation. All these conditions exist in the army, prisons, and psychiatric hospitals, where a person re-adapts to social reality, unlearning what he has learned in previous years.

Major Theories of Socialization: Freud, Mead, Erikson, Piaget, Kohlberg

In ethnographic expeditions, Margaret Mead discovered two different types of socialization – in Samoa and the Manos tribe. In the first case, successful survival is ensured by the fact that everyone personally accepts and deeply perceives the customs, traditions, norms, and values of the Samoa community. This leads to a resemblance of members of society to each other and extraordinary friendliness both to their own and strangers. In the latter case, boys enter adult society through close ties with their fathers, starting from early childhood. As a result, a very strong individualization of the men of the tribe with high aggressiveness and competition occurs. Mead argued that socialization plays an even greater role in human life than biological nature (as cited in Ferris & Stein, 2018). She believed that children should be fostered with a sense of diversity in lifestyles so that everyone can choose according to their liking.

Psychoanalytic theorists have written much about the crucial role of child socialization. Freud builds his theory of personality development based on a conflict between biological impulses and cultural norms; he considers socialization to be a process of curbing biological impulses. By socialization, Freud means the process of suppressing instincts and developing a “superego” (as cited in Grusec & Hastings, 2015). Society rests on impulse control; thus, successful socialization is the process of giving up immediate pleasure and satisfaction. Contrary to Mead’s theory, Freud’s child does not necessarily achieve harmony with the group.

Freud’s followers associated the stages of socialization not only with the phases of libido development; for example, but E. Erickson’s stages of socialization also correspond to life cycles. Erickson understood socialization not only as an individual, but also to a large extent as a collective process, which is formed by the mechanism of the individual’s identification with his group, people, and society (as cited in Ferris & Stein, 2018). According to Erickson, “identity” indicates the individual’s involvement in the unique values of the people, generated by its unique history, expresses the essence of the unique development of the personality itself (as cited in Grusec & Hastings, 2015). Erickson identified eight phases: infancy, early childhood, play age, school age, adolescence, early adulthood, adulthood, maturity (as cited in Grusec & Hastings, 2015). The human life cycle concept interprets childhood as a sequential process of personality development through phase-specific psychosocial crises.

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Jean Piaget explores socialization as cognitive development or the process of learning to think. Piaget conducted an experimental analysis of the forms of assimilation of experience in learning. Remaining a psychologist, Piaget shifted the center of gravity in socialization from society to the individual, and within him to the intellect. Piaget identified four stages of intellectual development, each of which corresponded to a child’s cognitive socialization (as cited in Grusec & Hastings, 2015). The works of J. Piaget showed that the development of a child’s intellect consists in the transition from egocentrism (centralization) through de-centering to the child’s objective position about the external world and himself (as cited in Ferris & Stein, 2018). With age, the child becomes more objective; they highlight the unchanging properties of objects (constancy of perception); allow for the existence of an external world that does not depend on their perception; become less egocentric.

American psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg devoted several decades to longitudinal and cross-cultural studies of the “child as a moral philosopher”. He suggested that children go through 6 stages in the ability to understand moral problems (as cited in Grusec & Hastings, 2015). Between the ages of 4 and 10, the concept of good and evil is associated with the need to obey those who have more power based on the fear of punishment. In adolescence, compliance with the rules is accompanied by the belief that the following social order is justified and valid, that it must be protected. As moral education deepens, young men reach the two highest stages of argumentation based on universal ethical principles, such as justice, equality, honesty.


The concept of socialization grasps the process of individuals’ adaptation to life in a particular society. Whether a socialization theory focuses on an individual or group aspect of socialization, it always emphasizes this process’s continual nature. The discussion of socialization in social sciences promotes nurture in the “Nature vs. nurture debates” (Ferris & Stein, 2018). Thus, socialization is a multi-staged continuous process of social and cultural norms and roles adaptation. The question here shifts from “nature vs. nurture” to “structure vs. agency”.


Ferris, K., & Stein, J. (2018). Socialization, Interaction, and the Self. In: The real world: an introduction to sociology (6th ed., pp. 96–121). W. W. Norton & Company.

Grusec, J. E., & Hastings, P. D. (Eds.). (2015). Handbook of socialization: Theory and research (2nd ed.). Guilford Publications.

Marshall, G. (2015). Socialization. Oxford Reference. Web.

Zittoun, T. (2016). Living creatively, in and through institutions. Europe’s Journal of Psychology, 12(1), 1-11.

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