Socialization as a concept originated in sociology and refers most simply to the process of learning to pattern behavior and adapt to society’s norms, rules, and strictures for playing specific social roles. Although it has not been central to British social anthropology, the discipline’s focus on society has contributed to a heavier emphasis on socialization than in American cultural anthropology, where the closely related concept of enculturation has been more important. Enculturation refers to the way individuals learn to pattern their thinking and feeling in culturally appropriate ways. Nonetheless, since all human beings undergo both kinds of learning, many anthropologists use the terms almost interchangeably to refer to the entire learning process necessary to be able to function in any given society or culture.
Studies of both socialization and enculturation in anthropology have tended to be grounded in theories of cognitive development that are holistic and social, rather than those that are more universalizing. George Herbert Mead and Lev Vygotsky are two popular sources for anthropologists to turn to because both thinkers focused on the social aspects of cognitive development. Both wrote about the importance of mastering symbols as a marker of maturity and, especially Mead, about the centrality of role playing in the learning process.
The earliest studies of socialization in anthropology focused largely on the ways that children and other immature members of society imitate the behaviors of adults or other mature members. Indeed, a review of the majority of the ethnographies of childhood, from the first by F. C. Spencer in 1899 up to the present, reveals that imitation is central to the socialization process in virtually every culture on earth. Classic examples of both American cultural anthropology, such as Margaret Mead’s study of growing up on the island of Manus near New Guinea, and British social anthropology, such as Meyer Fortes’s work with the Tallensi in East Africa, focus on the ways children rehearse interests, skills, feelings, behaviors, and other aspects of life in their culture and society without long-term repercussions for any mistakes.
In addition, these and many other ethnographers indicate that childrearing is actually secondary to the “culture-seeking” activities of children themselves. This is not to deny the role of teaching, other kinds of instruction, and, especially, such corrective feedback as threats, teasing, and shaming in the socialization and enculturation processes, but rather to emphasize both the agency of children and, more important, the near impossibility of transmitting most cultural knowledge in verbal form. In this way, the centrality of participant observation among both anthropologists in the field and young children everywhere have the same basis. Indeed, many societies actually deny that children, especially those under the age of six or seven, have any ability to understand the world around them, make appropriate decisions about their thoughts and feelings, or exercise control over their behavior. As a result, few people in these societies bother to teach young children at all, through either verbal or other kinds of training. They are left to learn through observation and imitative play, sometimes with the threat of censure if they act inappropriately, but often (especially outside of the West) without a formal lesson on how to act.
Despite the early emphasis on imitation in ethnographies of childhood, as well as the simplified definition of socialization given to many introductory students in anthropology—”the process of learning to live in society”—anthropologists have generally not thought of the process as simple replication. Imitation is always selective and even creative. For example, Margaret Mead noted with interest that children on Manus showed almost no interest in those activities deemed most important by adults, notably religion and ritual exchanges. They were very choosy in deciding which of their elders’ behaviors to imitate in play. At the same time, children’s imitation often both stems from and fosters a sense of identification with those of higher status, whether adults or older children. Eventually, this imitation develops into actual assistance in the carrying out of tasks and then into independent action. Some cultures also assign young children to this apprenticelike role, in which they are expected to perform family chores under the guidance of an older mentor, in the process learning through both imitation and guided instruction.
Another reason that imitation could never be seen as simple replication is because the societies in which most anthropologists have engaged in their studies of the socialization process are themselves undergoing tremendous change. This change, whether due to colonialism, postcolonial state formation, or globalization, has resulted in “socialization crises,” in which adults’ knowledge of the world is relatively useless to children educated by such outsiders as missionaries, state education systems, or the media. Studies of socialization, as well as adult resocialization, in these kinds of societies have tended to focus on the ways that old and new symbol systems have been negotiated, combined, and confronted by all actors for the benefit of themselves or their societies.
A theoretical problem with the notion of imitation has also emerged in the social sciences more generally following neo-Marxist and later postmodern critiques of the way that using the universalizing label “socialization” actually hides, or mystifies, the reproduction of specific class, race, gender, and other hegemonic systems. From this perspective, socialization must be studied as dialogic processes, in which individuals confront multiple socializations into family, community, school, church, and a host of other institutions over the course of their entire life, post-childhood socializations often being referred to as secondary socializations. The influences of these and many other institutions and symbol systems act simultaneously and often in contradictory ways to locate individuals within the matrix of society. This view aims to replace the traditional notion of socialization with one that recognizes that all individuals have multiple subject positions available to them, as well as multiple limitations based on race, class, ethnicity, nationality, gender, sexuality, and other factors. It also recognizes that individuals not only absorb ideas, values, skills, and behaviors from elders and others, but they also resist and transform them as well.
- Luykx, A. (1999). The citizen factory. Albany, NY:
- SUNY Press. Mead, M. (1975). Growing up in New Guinea. New York: William Morrow.