Skip over navigation


Primary Socialization



Socialization is the process whereby we learn to become competent members of a group. Primary socialization is the learning we experience from the people who raise us. In order for children to grow and thrive, caregivers must satisfy their physical needs, including food, clothing, and shelter. Caregivers must also teach children what they need to know in order to function as members of a society, including norms, values, and language. If children do not receive adequate primary socialization, they tend not to fare well as adults.

Developmental Stages

Researchers have different theories about how children learn about themselves and their roles in society. Some of these theories contradict each other, and each is criticized for different reasons, but each still plays an important role in sociological thought.

Freud’s Theory of Personality Development

Austrian physician Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, believed that basic biological instincts combine with societal factors to shape personalities. Freud posited that the mind consists of three parts that must interact properly for a person to function well in society. If any one of the three parts becomes dominant, personal and social problems may result. The three parts are the id, the superego, and the ego.

  1. Id: According to Freud, the id develops first. A newborn’s mind consists only of the id, which is responsible for the satisfaction of physical desires. The id represents a human being’s most primitive desires, and a person ruled only by the id would do everything strictly for his or her own pleasure, breaking societal norms in the process and risking punishment.
  2. Superego: As children move from infancy into childhood, their minds develop a superego, or conscience, which encourages conformity to societal norms and values. Someone with a hyperactive superego would be confined within a too-rigid system of rules, which would inhibit his or her ability to live normally.
  3. Ego: A healthy mind also consists of the ego, or the part of the mind that resolves the conflicts between the id and the superego. Normally, the ego balances the desires of the id and superego, but when it fails, a person may have difficulty making decisions, which can lead to behavioral problems.
Mead’s Theory of Social Behaviorism

Sociologist George Herbert Mead believed that people develop self-images through interactions with other people. He argued that the self, which is the part of a person’s personality consisting of self-awareness and self-image, is a product of social experience. He outlined four ideas about how the self develops:

  1. The self develops solely through social experience. Mead rejected Freud’s notion that personality is determined partly by biological drives.
  2. Social experience consists of the exchange of symbols. Mead emphasized the particularly human use of language and other symbols to convey meaning.
  3. Knowing others’ intentions requires imagining the situation from their perspectives. Mead believed that social experience depends on our seeing ourselves as others do, or, as he coined it, “taking the role of the other.”
  4. Understanding the role of the other results in self-awareness. Mead posited that there is an active “I” self and an objective “me” self. The “I” self is active and initiates action. The “me” self continues, interrupts, or changes action depending on how others respond.

Mead believed that the key to self-development is understanding the role of the other. He also outlined steps in the process of development from birth to adulthood:

Cooley’s Theory of the Looking-Glass Self

Like Mead, sociologist Charles Horton Cooley believed that we form our self-images through interaction with other people. He was particularly interested in how significant others shape us as individuals. A significant other is someone whose opinions matter to us and who is in a position to influence our thinking, especially about ourselves. A significant other can be anyone, such as a parent, sibling, spouse, or best friend.

Cooley’s theory of socialization involves his notion of the looking-glass self. The looking-glass self refers to a self-image that is based on how we think others see us. He posited a three-step process in developing this self:

Step 1

We imagine that a significant other perceives us in a certain way.

Step 2

We imagine that he or she makes a judgment about us based on that perception.

Step 3

We form a self-image based on how we think our significant other sees us.

Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development

Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget began to investigate how children think when he was giving them intelligence tests. According to Piaget, the way children think changes as they mature physically and interact with the world around them. Piaget identified four periods of development: sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational.

Stage 1: Sensorimotor Period

(birth to roughly age two): During this stage, children learn by using their senses and moving around. The main achievement of this stage is object permanence, which is the ability to recognize that an object can exist even when it’s no longer perceived or in one’s sight.

Example: If a three-month-old baby sees a ball, she’ll probably be fascinated by it. But if someone hides the ball, the baby won’t show any interest in looking for it. For a very young child, out of sight is literally out of mind. When the baby is older and has acquired object permanence, she will start to look for things that are hidden because she will know that things can exist even when they can’t be seen.

Stage 2: Preoperational Period

(age two to seven): During this period, children keep getting better at symbolic thought, but they can’t yet reason. According to Piaget, children aren’t capable of conservation during this stage. Conservation is the ability to recognize that measurable physical features of objects, such as length, area, and volume, can be the same even when objects appear different.

Example: Suppose a researcher gives a three-year-old girl two full bottles of juice. The girl will agree that they both contain the same amount of juice. But if the researcher pours the contents of one bottle into a short, fat tumbler, the girl will then say that the bottle has more. She doesn’t realize that the same volume of juice is conserved in the tumbler.

Stage 3: Concrete Operational Period

(age seven to eleven): During this period, children start to become capable of performing mental operations or working problems and ideas through in their minds. However, they can perform operations only on tangible objects and real events.

Example: If a mother tells her four-year-old, “Your Aunt Margaret is my sister,” he may say, “No, she’s not a sister, she’s an aunt!” An eight-year-old is capable of grasping that Margaret can be both sister and aunt, as well as a daughter, wife, and mother.

Stage 4: Formal Operational Period

(age eleven through adulthood): During this period, children become capable of applying mental operations to abstract concepts. They can imagine and reason about hypothetical situations. From this point on, they start to think in abstract, systematic, and logical ways.

Example: A teenager is motivated to organize a donation drive at his school for flood victims in Bangladesh because he is capable of imagining the plight of the Bangladeshis and empathizing with them. He is also capable of setting up the structures necessary to solicit and collect donations.

Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development



1. Sensorimotor

birth–2 years

2. Preoperational

2–7 years

3. Concrete Operational

7–11 years

4. Formal Operational

11 through adulthood

Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development

Lawrence Kohlberg was interested in moral reasoning, or why people think the way they do about what’s right and wrong. Influenced by Piaget, who believed that the way people think about morality depends on where they are in terms of cognitive development, Kohlberg proposed that people pass through three levels of moral development:

  1. The preconventional level: Children ascribe great importance to the authority of adults.
  2. The conventional level: Children want to follow rules in order to get approval.
  3. The postconventional level: People are more flexible and think in terms of what’s personally important to them. Only a small proportion of people reach this last stage of moral reasoning.

Psychologist Carol Gilligan argues that Kohlberg’s theory was inaccurate because he studied only boys. Gilligan posits that girls look beyond the rules of morality to find the caring thing to do, even if that action breaks a preexisting rule. Girls and women are also less likely to judge an individual’s actions as wrong because they see the complexities in relationships better than men do.

Agents of Socialization

People, groups, and experiences that influence our behavior and self-image are agents of socialization. Common agents of socialization for children include family, school, peer groups, and the mass media.


The family is the agent of socialization with the most impact. From infancy through the teen years, most children rely almost solely on their parents or primary caregivers for basic necessities, nurturing, and guidance. The family determines a child’s race, language, religion, class, and political affiliation, all of which contribute heavily to the child’s self-concept.


Schools introduce children to new knowledge, order, bureaucracy, and students from family backgrounds different from their own. The school experience also often pressures children to conform to gender roles.

Peer Groups

A peer group is a social group in which members are usually the same age and have interests and social position in common. By becoming part of a peer group, children begin to break away from their parents’ authority and learn to make friends and decisions on their own. Peer groups have a large impact on a child’s socialization. Pressure from peers to engage in behavior forbidden by parents, such as skipping school or drinking alcohol, can be difficult to resist.

Mass Media

The mass media are methods of communication that direct messages and entertainment at a wide audience. Newspapers, magazines, television, radio, the internet, and movies are all forms of mass media. Numerous sociological studies attest to the profound influence of mass media on children. Racial and sexual stereotypes, violent and sexually explicit images, and unrealistic or even unhealthy beauty standards that appear in the mass media shape the way children think about themselves and their world.

Isolated Children

Children raised in isolation, cut off from all but the most necessary human contact, do not acquire basic social skills, such as language and the ability to interact with other humans. Two of the most famous cases are Anna and Isabelle, both of whom were isolated from other human beings but had enough of their physical needs met to survive.

The Case of Anna

Anna was born in Pennsylvania to an unwed mother. The mother’s father was so enraged at Anna’s illegitimacy that the mother kept Anna in a storage room and fed her barely enough to stay alive. She never left the storage room or had anything but minimal contact with another human for five years. When authorities found her in 1938, she was physically wasted and unable to smile or speak. After intensive therapy, Anna did make some progress. She eventually learned to use some words and feed herself.

The Case of Isabelle

Isabelle was discovered in Ohio in the 1930s at the age of six. She had lived her entire life in a dark attic with her deaf-mute mother, after her grandfather decided he couldn’t bear the embarrassment of having a daughter with an illegitimate child. He had banished both of them to the attic, where they lived in darkness and isolation. When Isabelle was discovered, she couldn’t speak. After about two years of intensive work with language specialists, Isabelle acquired a vocabulary of about 2,000 words and went on to have a relatively normal life.

Institutionalized Children

Children raised in institutions such as orphanages often have difficulty establishing and maintaining close bonds with other people. Such children often have their physical needs met, but little else. They are fed, diapered, and kept warm but are deprived of significant contact with nurturing adults. They are not played with, cuddled, or spoken to. Such children tend to score lower on intelligence tests than children who were not only raised but also nurtured, and their interactions with other people reflect the fact that their emotional needs were not met.

Follow Us