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.

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