Culture, Identity, and Socialization

Elements of Culture:

Symbols – Anything that carries particular meaning recognized by people who share the same culture.

Language – System of symbols with sounds and words that carry meaning allowing people to communicate with one another.

Values – Shared standards of what is good and right which act as a guide for what people should think and believe.

Beliefs – Statements people hold to be true.

Norms – The behaviour society expects from its members. Mores – norms that are widely observed and carry a sense of what is right or wrong. Folkways – norms that are for routine, casual social interaction. Enforced by informal means.

Customs – Norms that are widely accepted in a particular society and carry on over time.

Laws ­– Rules given force by being formalized by governments. Enforced by formal means.

Status – Position someone has in a society; can be ascribed (fixed by others) or achieved.

Role – Patterns of behaviour expected by someone because of their status in society.

As norms and values, and therefore behaviour, vary throughout societies and time, it is concluded that they are social constructs. Most of the time social life is orderly and predictable due to shared norms and values and even though not everyone conforms to norms, societies have ways to express disapproval for those who break it.

A status of a person has set norms (called a role) associated with it. Classes are still distinguished by their refinement in manners and personal behaviour.

Society is made up of institutions whereas culture is about how these institutions work, setting norms and expectations about roles people should play. An identity is our sense of who we are but a large part of that comes from the norms and values set by society – if we conform, we will be seen as good in society and will see ourselves as good.

Our social identity or image of ourselves is therefore formed partly through interaction with others.

Over time, due to social interaction, people are more uncertain about their identities and thus, the role they play in society. E.g.: This can be either liberating as in they have broken away from the shackles of their demographic (relating to a particular region) identities and cultures, or it can be disorientating as they cannot identify themselves by their ethnicity, culture, language and region as we all look, eat and talk same. This also causes old stereotypes about disabilities, countries, gender roles, etc. to ­­­­­­break down.

NOTE: Sometimes there may be a role conflict such as a woman may have to experience conflict between their work role (need to be in the office) and their role as a mother (need to nurture children).

Conformity and Non-Conformity.

Nearly all people conform to most norms most of the time as through socialization they have internalized the shared values of the society (there is value consensus). Societies ensure social conformity by a system of sanctions – positive sanctions are also known as rewards and negative sanctions are called punishments. Informal social control is also imposed by those who do not have authority such as ostracism (social rejection) from peer groups.

Types of informal social control:

  • Shame
  • Ridicule
  • Sarcasm
  • Criticism

If informal social control doesn’t work, then formal social control – e.g.: police and criminal justice system – may be used.

Agencies of social control are also known as agencies of socialization and they are:

  • Family:
    • Agent of primary socialization.
    • Children absorb norms and values.
    • Children learn to regulate their own behaviour and internalize value so they feel guilt and remorse if they break norms.
  • Schools:
    • Agent of secondary socialization.
    • Have hidden curriculum (pupils learn to follow rules and that there are consequences if they don’t, apart from content of lessons).
  • Religion:
    • Offers guidelines and laws on how to behave.
    • Values of a society and normally based on the main religion.
  • Workplaces:
    • Rules and regulations that people need to learn to settle into their jobs.
  • Media:
    • Offer role models.
    • Offer constant messages and reminders about how to behave, rewards and punishments through examples of good and bad behaviour.
  • Peer Groups:
    • People feel need to belong in social groups.
    • Peer pressure is a powerful tool to persuade members of the group to conform

If these agencies fail to control social behaviour, then societies have powerful sanctions – such as the police – that can use coercion (force) to enforce laws.

Functionalist View on Social Control:

  • Believe that social control is essential for continued stability of the society – social order – and process is positive.
  • Society needs a shared set of values to hold them together to prevent anomie (lack of the usual social or ethical standards in an individual or group; condition of instability resulting from a breakdown of standards and values).
  • Emile Durkheim argued that society needed a collective conscience as they need a shared identity and because during periods of rapid social change, there is a risk that society will break down.

Marxist View on Social Control:

  • Believe that it allows the ruling class to continue in power and keeps the working class controlled so view the process as negative.
  • Louis Althusser referred to schools, media and religion as the ideological state apparatus (institutions that make people believe it is right to conform).
  • The norms that people conform to, however, suit and help to keep the ruling class in power. In effect, this is a form of brainwashing.
  • The state keeps in reserve the use of repressive state apparatus of the police, criminal justice system and armed forces when the ISA doesn’t work.


Groups of people in a culture whose norms and values are different in some ways from the overall culture are said to be in a sub-culture. They are influenced by the culture of society but may rebel against aspects of it in some way.

Youth sub-culture – mainly associated with groups of young people who adopt a culture that is partly at odds with the main culture.

Clothing, music, appearance and speech can act as symbols of these sub-cultures. They attract media attention and are considered deviant which is why they were considered threats and were subject to sanctions. Police would also deal more severely by youth sub-culture members. Existence of sub-cultures suggests that not everyone holds the same values and norms but there are dominant values and norms in society which sub-cultures are a reaction to.

Functionalist view on sub-cultures:

  • Sub-cultures offer a safety valve for adolescents (youths) as they grow a sense of autonomy (self-sufficiency) and independence and turn to their own age group.
  • Use idea of sub-culture to explain higher rates of crime among working-class boys, depending on the type of sub-culture they have joined, which may lead to dysfunctional societies and therefore, do not serve valuable functions.
  • However, positive sub-cultures are functional for some individuals whose route to success may be blocked as the sub-culture gives them a group where they can earn status and respect and serve valuable functions in society.
  • Sub-culture members may have the same values but some may not be able to perform under social confines so sub cultures are used as means of individual growth.
  • Employment, marriage and adult responsibilities make people leave sub-cultures and adopt mainstream norms and values.

Marxist view on sub-cultures:

  • Saw them as rebellions by working-class youth against capitalism due to not having enough education, good jobs or having dead-end jobs.
  • Middle-class youth didn’t rebel against the system due to usually having academic qualifications and a stable career.
  • Wasn’t focused on transition from childhood to adulthood but instead where youngsters found themselves in economic and class structure.
  • View youth sub-cultures as a way deep conflicts within society become visible.

However, most youth never belong(ed) in sub-cultures and instead conform(ed) to the norms and values of the main culture. Moreover, those who were/are part of sub-cultures may dress/act like members only when they are with other members.

Some writers have suggested that even-though sub-cultures usually began as rebellions – as suggested by Marxists – they soon became more style than substance and lost their values. E.g.: Punks rejected fashion and instead made their own clothes from ripped old clothes, safety pins and bin liners, but over time punk-clothing could be bought.

Girls’ behaviour was seen as less threatening getting less media attention, and parents continued to keep greater control over girls than boys. Angela McRobbie suggested that females got together in their homes (bedroom sub-culture), rather than streets, where they experimented with music and makeup. Girls created a sub-culture away from boys and adults, which McRobbie saw as a way of rebelling against sexual subordination (which due to changing gender roles became more evident in the future as girls became more prominent in sub-cultures like Goths).

Diversity and Cultural Variation

Different societies have different cultures which developed in either close contact with others or in relative isolation (like Australian Aborigines). Cultures are rooted in communities, so people learn about them through informal interactions at home and withing their community. Cultural interaction over time has increased, through travel and electronic mass communication, leading to a wider knowledge amongst people about others and this has created a diverse multicultural world. Very few people live traditional lifestyles and the main flow of culture is from the West (especially USA) to the rest of the world which is feared to bring cultural uniformity (single culture that the whole world abides by).

NOTE: Sociologists can’t be ethnocentric and have to judge cultures in the context of that culture’s own situation (have to show cultural relativism).

Due to migration, there are a lot of different cultures in a single nation so there is diversity, but over time assimilation of cultures means that a person may lose important aspects of their origin and may begin following the dominant culture (E.g.: People in USA in the 18th and 19th century).

There is a lot of criticism for multiculturalism:

  • Too many rights to minorities (e.g.: if every child was educated in their native language, it would be expensive)
  • Minority communities may stay separate from host due to reason such as different ideologies, and there will be insufficient integration
  • Too idealistic to achieve
  • Host culture is just another culture and won’t provide the value system that holds the society together (it’s argued that it should)
  • May lead to conflict

Some countries (e.g.: UK) move towards assimilation rather than multiculturalism:

  • Citizenship tests – people should know enough about the country’s history and should speak the native language.
  • Community cohesion – integrating minority groups in the community
  • Acting against the expression of some aspects of minority cultures in public (e.g.: France banned the wearing of anything that covered the face in public which banned an aspect of Muslim culture – the niqab – but not the religion)
  • Increasing Nationalism

Globalization and Global Culture

Globalization can be described as the process in which geography ceases to be a limitation on how aware people are about human behaviour.

Ways that some aspects of cultures have been globalized (are seen/ available everywhere) –

  • World information systems – satellite communications, internet, email
  • Global mass media – news, films, T.V. programs
  • Global patterns of consumption and consumerism – Samsung Galaxy S20 is available everywhere and is bought around the same time
  • Global sport – Olympic games, Football World Cup
  • World tourism
  • Clothing – jeans and t-shirts
  • Food – variety of cuisines are available in places that they aren’t native to
  • Branded items – McDonalds, Coca Cola, Walt Disney

Globalization has led to a change in thinking which is shown even in popular media – such as science fiction films where humans are united against a common enemy – and has led to a rise in capitalism. Moreover, globalization is usually viewed as westernization and can be seen as good or bad (when bad, is referred to as cultural imperialism as richer cultures rule over/influence other minor cultures).

However, flow of culture is not always one way. Philosophical and religious practices such as meditation and yoga from Asia have become popular. Some sociologists describe this as the creation of hybrid cultures (new culture emerging due to two cultures merging which has features of both).

Age group as an example of social construction – Biologically, children are physically immature, but the ways in which they are expected to behave, are treated and are thought of vary between cultures and time periods, therefore childhood is socially constructed.

Philippe Ariès (French historian) argued that childhood in the modern sense didn’t exist in the Medieval period in Europe. Children weren’t treated differently than adults. They wore the same clothes, worked alongside adults, shared the same recreations, learnt the same news, etc.

Over time the invention of the printing press and formal education led to children being protected from aspects of the adult world. Modern societies became child-centered. Ariès says that the idea of childhood is a modern invention. Neil Postman developed Ariès’ ideas and argues that childhood has changed due to the growth of television, computers and new technology as children are exposed to the adult world at an early age.

Postman cites increase in crime by children and the tendency for children to dress and behave sexually more like adults and at a younger age is evidence that childhood changes as society does.

Primary and Secondary Socialization

Socialization is a continuous process as people (children or adults) apply the norms, values and behaviour of society and think about how these messages apply to them. Young children are not blank slates on whom messages can be written (Tabula Rasa – theory that individuals are born without built-in mental content and that therefore all knowledge comes from experience or perception) and have the power to decide whether to internalize or reject messages from society.

Young children imitate their role models (as shown by Bandura’s Bobo Doll experiment) and continue or stop a certain behaviour if they are rewarded or sanctioned (called reinforcement).

Feminist Ann Oakley argues that children learn expectations based on their sex through:

  • Manipulation – Parents encourage and discourage certain behaviour (may encourage for boy and discourage for girl)
  • Canalization – Parents may channel their children towards certain activities considered appropriate for their sex (football for boys and cooking for girls)
  • Verbal Appellations – Words parents use to address their children (handsome for boys; pretty for girls)

Barrie Thorne, a feminist sociologist, tried to bring her two children (a boy and a girl) up in a gender-neutral environment. She argued that schools tend to encourage gendered behaviour in the way they treat boys and girls – such as boys v/s girls’ games – as hidden curriculum (some things that are taught aren’t part of formal curriculum in schools).

Moreover, sometimes it’s in the nature of boys and girls to follow gendered behaviour. Media messages, also, tend to be strongly gendered. Therefore, even though during primary socialization, the children are brought up in a gender-neutral environment, they may learn conflicting expectations from other agencies.

Inadequate Socialization – Children who have been inadequately socialized (AKA wild or feral children) are unable to fit into society. Studies of feral children show that communication and interaction are basic fundamental needs and therefore develop abnormally.

Common behaviours of feral children:

  • Find it difficult to speak a language
  • Hard to adapt to normal food
  • Do not like wearing conventional clothes
  • May not walk upright
  • May seem uninterested in other people
  • May be unable to understand how others see them and react to them
  • May not learn how to use the toilet

Case Studies:

  • Genie – shows importance of primary socialization:
    • Suffered extreme abuse and neglect; had very less sensory stimulation
    • Father believed she was mentally retarded and kept her in a bedroom – usually tied up – and terrorised her older brother and mother (blind), forbidding them to speak to her
    • No one knew of her existence till she was discovered at age 13 in California when she and her mother escaped.
    • Walked like a rabbit (hands up in front of her); couldn’t stand upright; unfocused on anything far; couldn’t chew
    • Made enough progress in institutions to speak in simple sentences; not enough to live a normal life
    • Problems may be due to inadequate socialization or mental problems from birth or result of abuse and neglect (or all three)
  • Rochom P’ngieng – shows importance of secondary socialization:
    • Disappeared from home at age 8 in Cambodia – primary socialization was completed – and reappeared nearly 20 years later
    • Having been deprived of human contact, lost ability to speak; preferred to crawl
    • Couldn’t readjust to society
    • Doubts about woman being the same girl
    • Concludes that human contact is crucial throughout our lives

Nature/Nurture Debate – Sociobiologists argue that abstract traits like intelligence and personality may be inherited just like eye colour. Some traits sociobiologists have said may be biologically determined are:

  • Criminal behaviour as there may be a genetic predisposition to violent, rule-breaking behaviour
  • Intelligence
  • Sexual orientation

However, it can be argued that while we inherit tendencies, they do not determine how we behave and through socialization, one may act completely different. Inheriting a tendency for aggressiveness means they are more likely to respond aggressively to a situation but they can control this behaviour and suppress their biological drives. Therefore, we all have biological needs but how we satisfy them, if at all, depends on our culture. Nature and nurture interact and depend on each other.

NOTE: Extremists in the nature v/s nurture debate are called biological determinists (give importance to only the nature aspect) and social determinists (give importance to only the nurture aspect).

Anthropologist G.P. Murdock looked at 224 societies and argued that me and women had different social roles because of their biological differences. However, feminist Ann Oakley used Murdock’s own findings to argue that there is no universal division of labour as there are societies in which land clearing is done by women and cooking by both sexes. The Mbuti pygmies have men and women who hunt together and share responsibility to take care of the children.

Functionalist Talcott Parsons argues that because mothers bear children, they have a closer and stronger relationship with the children. They provide love, understanding, warmth, comfort and security and have an expressive role while men have an instrumental role as the breadwinners of the family. Oakley uses the people of Alor, Indonesia as examples to show that women are not tied to their offspring and accuses Parsons on basing his views off male superiority – basically saying the expressive role isn’t necessary for the functioning of family but exists for the convenience of men.

NOTE: Many feminists dismiss sociobiology as a sophisticated attempt to justify male power.

Age, Gender, Ethnicity and Class as Influences on Identity

Age and identity – Members of an age group/generation that share a common experience of growing up at the same point in history are called a birth cohort. Their large or small numbers affect a variety of social changes such as companies making more products aimed at them, or increasing costs in health care and social services as the generation grows older.

Different ages bring different rights and responsibilities (e.g.: as an adult – the set age of 18 – one is allowed to drink, vote and marry in the UK but also has to pay taxes if working).

Adolescence is the period between childhood and adulthood, and involves a lot of status anxiety causing young people to rely on their peer group who are going through the same problems. The young, therefore, tend to share norms and values and form youth sub-cultures (refer above if needed) which are considered functional as they help transition from childhood to adulthood.

Gender and identity – Men and women adapt different roles based on the culture in which they are brought up. Anthropologist Margaret Mead found surprising variations in traditional societies in New Guinea. The male and female Arapesh were cooperative, calm, and helpful toward one another. This contrasted with the Mundugumar (Biwat) people, a group in which both men and women were more aggressive. The Tchambuli (Chambri) were even more distinct in that the women were more dominant than the men.

For men in the modern industrial society, the hegemonic (widely accepted) belief of masculinity – strong, competitive, aggressive, unemotional, active, etc. – was the ideal way to be and those who failed to live up to this were seen as not being “real men”. Women were supposed to express femininity and were supposed to be weak, emotional, passive, quiet, dependent, soft, etc.

Over time changes in these beliefs have caused freedom for men from restrictive roles and led to a fall in domestic violence as a greater willingness to talk and negotiate rather than fight arises in men. There is also a rise in stay-at-home dads and more men taking up nurturing roles at home along with normal workload (dual burden that women already have).

Ethnic group and identity – Ethnic identity is a social construct due to distinctions that people make based on language, religion, social class and national origin. Racism was based on alleged physical differences, but now cultural differences bring about tension within different cultures.

Social class and identity – Upper class members are likely to view themselves as belonging to an exclusive club, based of being able to spend considerable amounts of money.  Members of the middle class often try to show their status through spending the same way as the upper class. Due to loss of jobs, the working class have lost their positive values about their way of life and their collective identities are now usually viewed as negative due to their lifestyle and working conditions