Socialization and Social Interaction

The Basics of Sociology. Editor: Kathy S Stolley. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005. 

As humans, we are social beings who spend our lives interacting with others. Most of us have contact with other humans to some extent every day. Indeed, research shows that isolation from human interaction can be quite damaging. Sociologists and others have studied cases of children who spent their early childhood virtually isolated from all human contact, some literally locked away from human contact by abusive adults. These children lacked basic human responsiveness. Only after focused efforts to teach them social skills did these children begin to develop the social behaviors that are required to interact and live as a social being (e.g., Curtiss 1977; Davis 1940, 1947; Rymer 1993).

Sociologists study how we learn to live in society and interact with others—in other words, how the world is socially organized. They want to know how we learn social expectations, how we learn that these expectations apply to us, and how these expectations become part of us as individuals. They also want to know how these expectations are developed and perpetuated.

Socialization is a key to this social organization. Socialization is a lifelong social process of learning cultural patterns, behaviors, and expectations. Through socialization, we learn cultural values, norms, and roles. We develop a personality, our unique sense of who we are. We also pass along culture and social patterns to our children through socialization.

Theories of Socialization

An ongoing debate is whether human behavior is inborn and instinctual (resulting from “nature”) or produced through socialization and social experience (resulting from “nurture”). In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a widely held belief supported biologically based “human nature.” Today, sociologists position themselves on the “nurture” side of this debate. Rather than talking in terms of behavior based on “human nature,” sociologists talk in terms of human behavior based on socialization.

Research on how humans behave while drinking alcoholic beverages provides support for the influence of socialization. A common perception is that alcoholic beverages have a chemical impact on the brain, impacting sensorimotor skills, loosening inhibitions, and breaking the power that social norms typically hold on us. The resulting behavior is called a drunken comportment. If drunken comportment is entirely due to biology, then all people should exhibit the same behaviors as a result of drinking alcoholic beverages, regardless of their culture. If socialization is at play, then drunken comportment can be expected to vary according to cultural expectations.

To test this concept, Craig MacAndrew and Robert Edgerton (1969) explored accounts of drinking behavior among various cultures. They found that drunken comportment does indeed vary based on cultural expectations of how people act when under the influence of alcohol. Drunks among the Camba in Eastern Bolivia do not exhibit the heightened aggression, sexual activity, clowning, or boasting that are stereotypical drunken behaviors in the United States. Drinkers in Oaxaca, Mexico, are also not aggressive. Conversely, the Kaingang Indians in Brazil are very violent when drinking. All of these behaviors fit the expectations for drunken comportment in those particular cultures.

How and why do the members of each of these cultures know how to act drunk? How do they learn social expectations for various situations? And what is the impact of these expectations? Sociologists and others have developed and debated several theories to explain the socialization process and its implications.

The Looking-Glass Self

Charles Horton Cooley (1864-1929), profiled below, developed the concept of the looking-glass self. According to Cooley, society provides a sort of mirror, or “looking-glass,” that reflects to us who we are. We form our self image on the basis of how we think others see us. This concept consists of three major parts: “the imagination of our appearance to the other person; the imagination of [the] judgment of that appearance; and some sort of self-feeling, such as pride or mortification” (Cooley 1964, 184). We come to think of ourselves in terms of how we imagine others see us. If we think that others see us as beautiful or humorous, for example, we come to see ourselves in those terms. If we think they see us negatively, our self-image is likewise negative.

Our self-image also impacts how we interact with others. For example, if a person perceives that others think they are humorous, that person forms a self-image of themselves as someone who can make others laugh. Acting on this self-image, they may routinely joke with others in social situations or become the “class clown.” If a person forms a self-image of themselves as dumb, they will act accordingly by hesitating to speak up in class. However, our perceptions are not always correct. We may incorrectly interpret what others think of us. The person who thinks others see him as an amusing jokester may actually annoy or embarrass people.

Cooley also recognized that everyone’s view of us is not equally important. Those people who are more important to us have greater impact on our self-image than do others. A spouse’s compliment or derogatory statement may have a greater effect on someone’s self-perception than the same comment made by a stranger passing on the sidewalk.

Those whose views are most important to us are those in our primary group. Primary groups are those small groups in which all the members have enduring, intimate face-to-face interaction and cooperation. Cooley coined the term primary for these groups because they include the family, our first social group, and these groups provide much of our early and important socialization and social linkages. Close friends, children’s play groups, and perhaps even some neighbors and some work groups also constitute primary groups. As Cooley explains, primary groups are “fundamental in forming the social nature and ideals of individuals. The result of intimate association … is a certain fusion of individualities in a common whole … [T]he simplest way of describing this wholeness is by saying that it is a ‘we’ “ (1963, 23).

In primary groups, members value each other as individuals and achieve some personal fulfillment. They do things that will benefit the group, without expectation of payment or self-serving benefit. One member of a family might wash laundry or perform housework that benefits all family members. A few close friends might spend several unpaid days working to repair the roof on another friend’s house.

Other groups in our lives are secondary groups, larger groups in which all members do not interact directly and have relationships that are not permanent. Members do not share the intimate bonds characteristic of primary groups and, thus, are somewhat interchangeable. They join the group because it benefits them in some way. They may leave the group or join other groups as it behooves them to do so. However, these groups may still have some shared norms and sense of group identity. Examples of secondary groups include office workers, students in an exercise class, neighborhood civic leagues, and professional organizations. These groups are also important to our views of ourselves, but less so than primary groups. (See chapter 5 for a more extensive discussion of groups.)

The I and Me

George Herbert Mead (1863-1931), profiled below, developed a concept of the self that was central to our understanding of the socialization process and the development of symbolic interactionism (as discussed in more detail in chapter 2.) To Mead (1934), we are not born with a “self.” We develop a self through social experience and interaction.

There are two phases to this self that we form: the I and the Me. The I is a spontaneous, impulsive, creative actor. The Meis the part of us that conforms, reflecting and acting on the reactions of others. We have a mental conversation with ourselves that guides our behaviors that goes like this: When I do something, it will reflect on Me, and others will appraise that behavior. I can then fashion new actions and reactions in response to my perception of how others have appraised Me.

The core of socialization in Mead’s concept is role taking, or the ability to take the role of others in social interaction, enabling us to see ourselves as we perceive society sees us. In other words, we learn to assess and adjust our behavior based on the anticipated and perceived reactions of others. We develop this role-taking ability through a series of four stages. As we move through each of these stages, we become increasingly able to take the role of others and further develop our self. In the preplay stage, babies do not have the ability to take the role of others. They only respond to their environment. As children develop, they grow into the play stage. They play at being some particular person, such as Mommy or Daddy, or a teacher, and they play with imaginary playmates. This, according to Mead, is the stage during which the self begins to form. In the organized game stage, children learn to take the role of multiple other players and understand the relationship these roles have to each other. A child playing kickball must understand the roles of each player on the field to play his own role. Upon reaching the adult stage, the person becomes able to take on a role Mead calls the generalized other. In this stage, they learn to take the attitude of the whole community. They learn to think about how the community perceives their behavior. The self is finally formed as the person comes to understand and respond to societal values. They can then fashion their behavior by having the complete I/Me mental conversation.

More recent research by sociologists has considered whether the concepts of Cooley and Mead can be applied to animals. Mead said that animals could not engage in these types of interactions because they lacked the cognitive skills (e.g., memory and language) to do so. However, Cooley did not see language as critical for such interaction. In their study of a cat shelter, sociologists Janet and Steven Alger found that “although the caretakers did not believe that the cats had conversations with themselves in human language, they gave examples of cats appearing to make mental calculations based on memory, taking the role of the other, and accessing future consequences. These mental calculations allowed the cats to define the situation, choose a course of action, and change that course when necessary” (2003, 16). Other researchers (e.g., Arluke and Sanders 1996) are also examining the interactions in the social world of animals.

Personality and Social Development

Sociologists have also looked to the field of psychology for insights that help inform their understanding of the socialization process. Much of the work of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), profiled below, is both complex and controversial. However, Freud made important contributions to our understanding of socialization. He argued that early socialization is critically important to personality development and to managing natural desires that promote self-interest rather than social interests. He also addressed the importance of internalizing norms and values. Additionally, Freud (1950) moved beyond Cooley’s and Mead’s focus on conscious perceptions, identifying the importance of the unconscious mind.

Freud (1950) saw personality as divided into three parts: the id, the ego, and the superego. The id is made up of our basic biological drives and needs. These are our sexual drives and fundamental needs, including food. They are self-centered rather than socially centered, and they crave immediate gratification.

The ego is our “self,” our personality, which balances the urges of the id with the requirements of a civil society. The desires of the id have to be tempered. Chaos would result if everyone was constantly seeking to gratify all of their own desires. Society would not be able to exist as we know it. Through socialization, which Freud saw as primarily the responsibility of parents, we learn to repress our id and develop the ego.

The superego consists of our internalized social controls, culture, values, and norms. It is our conscience. The id and the superego are engaged in a constant struggle, mediated by the ego in a largely unconscious process. If the ego mediates properly, the person will be well socialized and well adjusted. Otherwise, the result will be a personality problem.

Freud focused largely on the importance of early childhood (the preschool-age years) in our socialization and later development. Other psychologists have developed theories that, while often focusing on the importance of childhood, elaborate on other age-based life stages and social experiences.

German psychologist Erik Erikson’s (1985) cross-cultural studies have led him to conclude that we pass through eight stages of age-based development, from early infancy through our late adult years. According to his perspective, developmental tasks must be accomplished each stage before the person can move on to the next stage to grow up and live in a psychologically healthy way.

Jean Piaget (1896-1980), a Swiss psychologist, developed a theory of cognitive development that examined how children develop the ability to learn, understand, and engage in logical thought. Piaget felt that humans develop through four stages as they learn to use language, understand reality, discover how and why things work as they do, and then think abstractly. They learn to make causal connections and reason out alternatives. A corresponding theory of moral development examined how people progress from the self-centeredness of a small child, through learning, to understand others’standpoints and develop an abstract sense of fairness. Social experience is a vital role throughout this development (Piaget 1926, 1928, 1930, 1932).

This theory of moral development was further expanded by Lawrence Kohlberg. According to Kohlberg (1984), moral development also occurs in stages. Children do what meets their needs to stay out of trouble. As young teens, people are socialized into meeting socially accepted norms and values. Some adults are then able to engage in abstract ethical reasoning, considering not only “right” and “wrong” but the reasons for these positions.

How socialization impacts this moral reasoning has been the subject of further research by psychologist Carol Gilligan (1982; Gilligan, Ward, and Taylor 1989). Considering gender, she argues that boys and girls use different principles in moral reasoning. These principles reflect gender-role socialization, the process of learning to take on socially approved roles for males and females. Boys tend to focus on justice, whereas girls tend to focus on caring and responsibility. Gender-role socialization impacts us throughout our lives. It influences the way we approach social relationships, leisure activities, even our jobs. For example, Lawson (2000) demonstrates that gender even impacts how men and women sell cars. Male salespeople focus more on aggressive sales tactics, while women are more likely to use their interaction skills.

These psychological theories have been targets of various criticisms. Critics argue that they are largely based on studies of males (excluding Gilligan) and the middle class and tend to generalize findings from Western cultures to other cultures. However, they are important in pointing out that socialization is a process of development.

The Socialization Process

Sociologists recognize that the experience of socialization is a lifelong process. It occurs from childhood through adulthood and even into old age. It occurs across our entire life span and, to some extent, across all of our social interactions. People move into, and out of, roles throughout their lives from “getting a driver’s license, high school graduation, marriage, divorce, the first full-time job, retirement, [through] widowhood. In general, each major transition initiates a new socialization experience or situation that has implications for the individual’s self-concept” (Gecas 2000, 2861). At the end of life, socialization processes even help people prepare for death (Kubler-Ross 1969).

Across all societies, the family is the first and most important location for socialization (an agent of socialization). The family into which we are born provides us social characteristics such as social class, race and ethnicity, and religious background. Our families are our initial teachers of behaviors, language, cultural knowledge, values, and social skills. They are also central to gender role socialization (Fenstermaker Berk 1985). In other words, they provide our primary socialization.

Older research focused almost exclusively on parents as agents of socialization for children. Newer research examines how children influence parents as well (Gecas 2000, 2858). Researchers are also looking at how changing family structures, such as the increasing number of single-parent families, impact child socialization (McLanahan and Sandefur 1994).

In schools, students are exposed to a variety of different experiences. They interact with people of different races, ethnicities, religions, social classes, and value systems, perhaps for the first time. These secondary-group interactions with schoolmates and staff are different than the primary-group interactions they have had with their families. When children enter school, they enter a bureaucracy where they are expected to learn how to be a student (Gracey 2001). They will be educated not only in academic skills, but also in a hidden curriculum that encourages conformity to the norms, values, and beliefs held by wider society. Students learn to speak with proper grammar, stand in line, wait their turn, and in some schools, say the Pledge of Allegiance to the U.S. flag. In addition to families, schools also contribute to gender-role socialization. Formal and informal institutional activities such as recess periods and games socialize children into culturally approved gender roles (e.g., Best 1983; Block 1983; Thorne and Luria 1986).

Socialization also occurs among peer groups, those of similar age, social class, and interests. Peer settings allow children to engage in activities outside of parental control and other adult supervision. Peers become especially important in adolescence. They influence students’ study habits (Bogler and Somech 2002), music, and clothing choices, and views of self (Eder 1995). Theories that address peer socialization are often used to explain adolescent deviance (see chapter 6). Friends are a major source of information about sexuality for adolescents, and they have a greater influence on dating choices than do adults (Wood et al. 2002). Pressure from peers encourages teens to engage in sexual intercourse, with boys in particular pressing each other to talk about sexual prowess and “scoring” (Sprecher and McKinney 1993). Parents, however, have influence over many of the “big” areas in adolescents’ lives, such as their long-term goals (Davies and Kandel 1981).

Mass media, impersonal communications that are directed in a one-way flow to a large audience, are also important in the socialization process. These media are pervasive throughout society. They include newspapers, magazines, movies, radio, and television. We are exposed to a variety of behaviors, ideas, beliefs, and values through the media. We also obtain many of our views about society and how things are or should be through the mass media. For example, whether or not we have ever met a team of emergency room physicians or observed surgery, we develop expectations about these people and situations based on media portrayals (e.g., televised medical dramas and documentaries about medical procedures). A number of studies have found that the mass media in various forms including children’s books (e.g., Davis 1984; Peterson and Lach 1990), television programming (e.g., Thompson and Zerbinos 1995), and advertising (Kilbourne 2000) perpetuate gender stereotypes and gender role socialization.

The socialization process continues in a variety of settings, including religious organizations, political organizations, recreational settings, and voluntary associations such as clubs (Gecas 2000, 2860). The workplace is also a major location for socialization. Workplace socialization requires that we learn to fulfill the role of worker, demonstrating the requisite job skills and norms associated with the position (Moreland and Levine 2002). Nurses, for example, must learn how to transfer the skills and values acquired during training to the work setting (Lurie 1981). That includes fitting the norms of how nurses interact with physicians, colleagues, and patients, how they dress, and how they present themselves as a “nurse.”

While in nursing school, student nurses are also influenced by anticipatory socialization. They learn and adopt the behavior and attitudes of the group they desire or expect to join. This occurs as they interact with their peers and attempt to fit in with their mentors and established colleagues. Anticipatory socialization occurs in many settings across society. It’s not specific to the workplace. It occurs in any group we wish to join or use as a reference group. For example, we anticipate how to fit in with classmates, a potential spouse’s family, or members of a sports team we join (see Chapter 5).

Retirement from paid work also continues the socialization process. Many workers look forward to being able to leave their jobs and move on to another position or leisurely activities. What they find may be unexpected, at least to some degree. Social expectations for retirees are not as clearly defined as for other stages in the life course. This leaves some retirees in a “roleless” role. However, loss of the worker role is less of a problem to retirees than other issues such as health or income (e.g., Solomon and Szwabo 1994), and most retirees experience their retirement years positively (Atchley 2000; Palmore et al. 1985; Crowley 1985).

Overall, as the population ages, sociologists and other researchers are devoting more attention to socialization in adulthood and later life. They are even questioning whether we are expanding later life stages (e.g., post-retirement and widowhood) or creating new ones (e.g., “nursing home stage”) (Gecas 2000, 2861).

Total Institutions and Resocialization

A specific type of socialization occurs when people are in places such as prisons, mental hospitals, and military boot camps. These settings are total institutions. According to Erving Goffman, a total institution is “a place of residence and work where a large number of like-situated individuals, cut off from wider society for an appreciable period of time, together lead an enclosed, formally administered round of life” (1961, xiii; italics mine). Staff separate “inmates” from the outside world and enforce a routinized lifestyle within the institution. Mealtimes, work periods, recreation periods, and bedtimes may be tightly scheduled, and uniforms are often required.

A major goal of enforcing these routines is to achieve resocialization, altering the person’s personality by controlling the environment. This resocialization reshapes the inmate’s personality to fit the needs of the institution. It takes place in two steps. First, the existing sense of self must be broken down. The inmate is systematically separated from the old self and outside life. Second, a new self must be built with new behaviors and attitudes. This is often accomplished through staff manipulation of rewards and punishments.

Louis A. Zurcher (1967) drew from his own experience and other data to explain resocialization in navy boot camp. In that setting, all aspects of a recruit’s life are controlled by the central authority (i.e., the U.S. navy). There is a single plan for all recruits that challenges their civilian selves and reorients them to a military standard. The recruits’ personal autonomy is challenged by requiring them to adhere to strict schedules and rules for care and storage of gear. Their sense of personal privacy is removed by staff access to their personnel folders and by requirements to disrobe for medical lineups. Their physical self-concepts are challenged by requiring that they wear naval attire and get haircuts. Their bodies are even controlled by requiring them to stand at attention and march in formation everywhere they go as a group. As a result of the resocialization process, recruits replace their former identities with the new role of sailor.

Socialization and Social Interaction

To interact effectively with each other, people must have some shared sense of the world. They must interact within some social “reality” that defines how to interact and what those interactions mean. To sociologists, this “reality” is not objective. Rather, it is subjectively understood and built through our day-to-day contacts with each other. This concept is central to the symbolic-interactionist perspective, discussed in chapter 2.

The social construction of reality is the process by which people interact and shape reality (Berger and Luckmann 1966). According to this concept, society is not some objective entity that evolves in a predetermined and unchangeable way. Humans create it through social interactions. As we interact with others, we constantly talk, listen, observe, evaluate, and judge situations based on the ways we have been socialized to understand and react to them. Through this ongoing process of perceiving and defining events, we “interpret” reality and “negotiate” meaning. For example, a worker who has been repeatedly disciplined by management might perceive a supervisor striking up a conversation as harassment, intimidation, or management checking up on them. A worker with no disciplinary actions on their record might perceive the same conversation as friendly chat.

Central to this idea is the Thomas Theorem, the understanding that if we define situations as real, they are real in their consequences (Thomas and Thomas 1928). This means that we respond to the subjective meanings that a situation has for each of us. We then behave based on that interpretation. As Lewis Coser summarizes, “If people believe in witches, such beliefs have tangible consequences—they may, for example, kill those persons named to be witches … It stands to reason, of course, that there are benevolent as well as malevolent consequences of such definitions of the situation; peasant girls can become saints and politicians high-minded statesmen. In any case, and regardless of the consequences, definitions always organize experience” (1977, 521-22). In Coser’s example, it does not matter whether witches actually exist. What matters is whether people believe they exist. They act on the basis of that belief in ways that have very real consequences. Peter Berger and William I. Thomas, two of the sociologists first articulating these important concepts, are both profiled below.


How this shared sense of realty develops and plays out is basic to sociologists’ understanding of society and social organization. Erving Goffman (1959, 1963a, 1967), profiled below, developed a dramaturgical analysis in which he compared our everyday social interactions to theatrical performances. According to Goffman, we interact as if we are actors performing roles on a stage. We use these performances to direct and control the impressions we make in others’ minds. This is called impression management. Through a “presentation of self,” we consciously attempt to influence how other people see us. The campaign literature published by political candidates is an excellent example of this concept in action (King 2002).

Developing the theater analogy, Goffman divides social interaction into front-stage and back-stage regions. Just like in a play, front-stage behavior is action that occurs for an audience. We use appearances, mannerisms, and props in this front stage to facilitate our act and better manage the impression we seek to make. Consider, for example, behaviors on a first date. Clothing, conversation topics, and location are selected to convey the way the daters wish to present themselves. During a job interview for an office position, the interviewee might wear a conservative business suit, carry a résumé in a nice folder, and lean forward when answering questions in an attempt to create a positive image in the interviewer’s mind.

Back-stage behavior occurs out of sight of any audience. That is where the props and performances are prepared. It is also where we can truly be ourselves. Preparing for the date or interview in the privacy of home occurred back stage, as clothing and appearances were selected. During a front-stage event, a person might go back stage into a restroom to check or readjust his appearance. After the date or the interview, the person can go home, put on comfortable clothes, and “be himself.”

Our social performances are complex interactions. They consist not only of actively presenting information but also often include concealing information as well. Daters may not reveal, for example, that they have a child or that they smoke cigarettes in an attempt to convey certain images to their date. Job candidates might conceal a police record or lack of computer skills. Regina Kenen found people in a public laundromat engaged in impression management even among strangers. She observed people as they tried to conceal “padded bras, torn underwear, stained garments, or even designer bedsheets … [as items that may reveal too much personal information] and may contradict the intended presentation of self” (1982, 178).

Goffman also notes that in our social interactions we are both actor and audience at the same time. On the first date, both parties are concerned with managing their own performances as well as interpreting their dates’ performance. Throughout the date, they are evaluating performances by asking, “How am I coming across? What does that person think of me?” as well as “What do I think of this person? Do I want another date?” In the interview situation, the interviewer as well as the person being interviewed are both engaged in a performance, an act of attempting to convey information to the other person. The office in which the interview is conducted, the way the office furniture is set up, the types of decor used, the way the interviewer is dressed, and the interviewer’s tone and mannerisms all convey an image about the company and the interviewer.

We are constantly reevaluating our performances in light of feedback we perceive we are getting from others. This does not mean that we always perceive feedback correctly, only that we adjust our own acts in response to whether we think we are making the desired impression on others. We may feel we need to appear more sincere, more hardworking, more free-spirited, less anxious, and so on and try to adjust our “performance” to convey these desired impressions.

Ethnomethodology and Conversation Analysis

Ethnomethodology is based on work Harold Garfinkel (1967, 2002) started in the 1940s. Garfinkel is one of the sociologists profiled below. Literally meaning the “people’s methods,” ethnomethodology is defined as people making sense of their everyday social activities. This perspective examines our patterns of everyday life and how people construct their social worlds. To this end, ethnomethodologists study the routine and small interactions that we engage in on a daily basis.

Ethnomethodology starts from the idea that our everyday interactions with each other produce an orderly world. However, we live by social rules that we are only vaguely aware of, if we are aware of them at all. These are not the mores or laws discussed in chapter 3 or the criminal deviance discussed in chapter 6. Rather, the rules that interest Garfinkel are the norms and folkways that guide routine interactions and behaviors. His premise argues that even as we interact and follow these rules, we still take much of our world for granted.

Ethnomethodologists often seek to demonstrate the existence of these rules by breaking them. Garfinkel conducted a series of “breaching experiments” in which he asked his students to break, or breach, the rules of social order. This would allow them to expose that order and how it is constructed and taken for granted. In one of these now classic experiments, Garfinkel asked students to act as boarders in their own homes. For 15 minutes to one hour, they were to be polite and use formal addresses (e.g., Mr., Mrs.), not make personal conversation, and speak only when spoken to by others.

Students reported that family members’ reactions covered a range of emotions. They were variously irritated, astonished, bewildered, anxious, or embarrassed. Students were accused of being selfish, impolite, mean, superior, and inconsiderate. They were asked what was wrong and whether they were ill, working too hard, or angry. They were then often isolated with statements such as “Don’t bother with him, he’s in one of his moods again.” Family members often demonstrated emotional reactions as they tried to understand behaviors that did not fit their constructions of typical family behavior (Garfinkel 1967, 47).

Conversation analysis is an offshoot of ethnomethodology that focuses on the importance of conversation in creating social order. The everyday inquiry of “How are you?” that is commonly used as a polite greeting provides an example. A common response to this question is something such as “Fine” or “I’m well, thank you.” The common understanding between the parties to the conversation is that the question is generally a social greeting, not a literal inquiry into the state of one’s health. If the respondent were to reply with what may be a truthful answer, such as “I’m feeling awful—I have a pain in my back, the children are wearing me out, my spouse is constantly nagging me about money, and my supervisor is asking for a report I haven’t had time to start yet,” the social interaction would change considerably.

To expose these types of taken-for-granted understandings that guide our conversations, Garfinkel recounts the following exchange. It occurred during an assignment in which his students were directed to ask for clarification of statements that would otherwise be understood through these taken-for-granted assumptions:

The victim waved his hand cheerily.

(S) How are you?

(E) How am I in regard to what? My health, my finances, my school work, my peace of mind, my …?

(S) (Red in the face and suddenly out of control.) Look! I was just trying to be polite. Frankly, I don’t give a damn how you are. (1967, 44)

Critics of ethnomethodology argue that these details are too trivial to be important. They argue that the approach focuses too much on orderliness in society and does not adequately take the larger social structure into account. Ethnomethodologists respond that there is much to be learned from the assumptions they challenge and the rules they expose. “It is possible that detailed study of small phenomena may give an enormous understanding of the way humans do things” (Sacks 1984, 24).

Globalization and the Internet

As the complexity of society grows, so does the complexity of the issues involved in socialization. The larger world provided by globalization and information technologies are changing the processes and outcomes of socialization. Researchers interested in socialization are increasingly extending beyond the mainstream American perspectives that have long typified socialization research. Increasing numbers of cross-cultural comparisons, such as the similarities and differences in socialization experiences in varying cultures, are being undertaken.

Different cultures have varying concepts of life-stages such as “childhood,” “adulthood,” and “old age,” and associated social roles (Aries 1962). Globalization is challenging these concepts as well as concepts of ethnicity and identity. Researchers are seeking ways to make children more active participants in their own socialization in this changing world (e.g., Ackroyd and Pilkington 1999; Bellamy 2002). They are also focusing on how families can better prepare their children for a globalized world (Rapoport 1997).

Much less attention has been given to how such technologies as the Internet are changing how socialization happens and the results of the socialization process (Gecas 2000, 2862). However, globalization and the Internet together are combining to impact how socialization occurs. For example, the Internet appears to be helpful in resocializing Chinese students and scholars in the United States to American behaviors (Melkote and Liu 2000).

Sociologists have identified several other impacts on socialization brought about by the Internet. Computing changes such as networked school classrooms and increasing bandwidth have been a factor in changing curriculums that include new ways of learning and more emphasis on social issues. The potential result could ultimately be a reconsideration of the role and purposes of schools (Russell 2000).

Sociologists interested in the impact of the Internet on socialization processes have also been able to study how a shared sense of reality develops in virtual interactions. For example, Goffman’s concepts are not found only in face-to-face interactions. They are also a part of online interactions. Presentation of self occurs on the Internet via the personal home page (Bell 2001, 117-18). People pick and choose various facets of their personalities and lives to present online, or they can present themselves any way they choose to do so. Cyberspace allows participants to play with their identity and create multiple selves online. They present themselves and basic characteristics of race, class, gender identities in various ways (Kendall 2002).

People may also act differently on the Internet than when interacting face to face (Joinson 1998). Online norms may accept behaviors that would be considered unacceptable in offline interactions. For example, some multiuser domains (MUDs) create a violent virtual world in which characters are expected to fight, curse, rape, or kill other online characters (Dibbell 1999). However, other research suggests that the Internet may actually facilitate building social bonds among physically separated people who can share perspectives and connections aside from the familiarity of face-to-face interactions (Chayko 2002). Further research into social interactions on the Internet is a rich field for research and will help us better understand how we relate in the virtual world and how these interactions will impact other aspects of our lives.


Peter Berger

Peter Berger (1929-) was born in Vienna, Austria. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1952 (“Berger, Peter Ludwig” 1981). Berger is currently University Professor of Sociology and Theology at Boston University. He holds a doctorate earned from the New School for Social Research in 1954. He has also studied at the University of Michigan, the Yale Divinity School, and Philadelphia’s Lutheran Theological Seminary. Berger has received honorary degrees from Loyola University, Wagner College, the University of Notre Dame, the University of Geneva in Switzerland, and the University of Munich in Germany. He is also a novelist.

Berger is a prolific, widely read, and widely cited sociologist. His work The Social Construction of Reality (1966), coauthored with Thomas Luckmann, is one of the most important works in interpretive sociology. Invitation to Sociology (1963) is also an influential work that is widely assigned to students in introductory sociology courses. Berger’s work includes writings on social theory and the sociology of knowledge, the sociology of religion, and work on modernization and social change that incorporates his theological and political concerns (Hunter and Ainlay 1986). Berger has also held the presidency of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion. Of his career, Berger says, “You might say that I became a sociologist by accident. I took some courses in sociology and liked them. I have always been curious about what makes people tick, and that is what sociology is all about” (quoted in Henslin 2001a, xx).

For almost two decades, Berger has been Director of the Institute for the Study of Economic Culture. He is coeditor of Many Globalizations: Cultural Diversity in the Contemporary World (2002), a collection that addresses social change across the globe. His work in the area of global culture was recognized in 1992 when he received the Mannes Sperber Prize from the Austrian government (Berger, “Peter Berger”).

Charles Horton Cooley

Charles Horton Cooley (1864-1929) was born the fourth of six children to a well-known Ann Arbor, Michigan, family. His father was “hard-driving and success-oriented,” (Coser 1977, 314) serving as the first dean of the University of Michigan Law School, the first chair of the Interstate Commerce Commission, a Michigan Supreme Court justice, and legal author. The younger Cooley has been described as being “overawed” and alienated from his father and as having a “withdrawn, passive, and retiring character.” He was somewhat shy and insecure with a slight speech impediment and variety of health problems. As an adult, Cooley and his family led a simple, quiet life summering at their lake cabin in Northern Michigan. He was an amateur botanist and bird watcher (Coser 1977).

To Cooley, sociology was “a means of interpreting life-situations” (Healy 1972, 95). His own self-examination and observation of his children aided him in forming his concepts of the looking-glass self and primary groups (Coser 1977). A journal he began at age 18 provided as the source for his 1927 book Life and the Student (Angell 1968).

Cooley did not turn to sociology until he was in his late 20s. He earned an undergraduate degree in engineering, worked as a draftsman and as a statistical researcher in Washington, D.C., and studied political economy as a graduate student at University of Michigan. He earned his Ph.D. in 1894. His dissertation, “The Theory of Transportation,” was an early work in the area of human ecology (a perspective discussed in chapter 8).

Cooley took a teaching position in economics and sociology at Michigan before he completed his degree and remained there for his entire career. Although he was not as popular with undergraduates, he had a powerful influence on many of his graduate students. “The lectures that this slight, nervous, and somewhat sickly looking professor delivered with a high-pitched voice lacking resonance often would not go over well with the undergraduates. Yet he appealed to a number of graduate students who were inspired by his probing and searching intellect. Many of the graduate students felt that it was a privilege to sit in his seminars … [A]s many of his students have testified, those who managed to gain privileged access in his seminars and classes to the workings of his complicated mind were influenced by his approach throughout their lives” (Coser 1977, 316).

Cooley, himself a voracious reader, wrote only a few journal articles and books, including Human Nature and Social Order (1902), Social Organization (1909), and Social Process (1918). He was a founding member of the American Sociological Society (the organization that would become the American Sociological Association) and served as its president in 1918.

Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was born in Freiberg, Monrovia. His family moved to Vienna, where he spent almost his entire life. Freud entered the University of Vienna in 1873, earning his medical degree in 1881. He took a position as a resident at Vienna General Hospital and joined the hospital’s Department of Nervous Diseases two years later. He studied in Paris, then returned to Vienna, married, and established his private practice in 1886.

Among Freud’s many accomplishments are his discovery of the unconscious mind, his use of hypnosis as a treatment for hysteria, and his development of psychoanalysis. The latter depended on his recognition of the relief that talking could bring to some patients. He saw his “talking cure” as a catharsis, or purging, of intense emotions.

Freud’s writing included a number of influential books. Civilization and Its Discontents (1929) was a theoretical piece examining social relations. He laid out his concept of the id, ego, and superego in The Ego and the Id (1923). Freud conducted his own self-analysis and developed his theory of the unconscious in The Interpretation of Dreams (1950, orig. 1900), a book that has been called by some his most important work.

Among his awards, Freud received an honorary degree from Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, and the Goethe Prize for literary achievement. He was elected a Corresponding Member of the Royal Society. He also founded an international publishing firm.

In pre-World War II Germany, Freud’s books were among those publicly burned by the Nazis. Shortly after Germany’s 1938 invasion of Austria, Freud fled to London. In 1939, he died of mouth cancer, which he had fought for the last 16 years of his life. Treatments had required the removal of much of his right jaw and palate in a series of 33 painful surgeries. He had also had to use a metal prosthesis as an artificial roof of his mouth. Freud continued to conduct psychoanalyses of a few patients until several weeks before his death (condensed from Clark 1980; B. Mann 1993).

Harold Garfinkel

Harold Garfinkel (1917-), originally from Newark, New Jersey, started his college education by taking business and accounting courses at the University of Newark. The original plan was that he would take courses by day, work in his father’s furniture business at night, and then go into his father’s business after graduation. However, even at that stage in his education, Garfinkel was already viewing his lessons in sociological terms. In accounting class, for example, he realized that “choosing … whether to place an item in the debit or the assets column was already a social construction” (Rawls 2002, 10).

Garfinkel studied sociology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. He completed his master’s thesis and then joined the air force after the United States entered World War II. Garfinkel was tasked to teach strategies for small arms warfare against tanks. However, he had no tanks, only photos of tanks. All real tanks were committed to combat. His troops were required to train by attacking, and avoiding being seen by, imaginary tanks (Rawls 2002, 15). This military assignment was “ironically appropriate” for the “father of ethnomethodology” (Rawls 2002, 15). Ethnomethodology is a perspective that “has its origins” in Parsons’s The Structure of Social Action (Garfinkel 1988, 104). It looks for “what more” there is to formal analyses (Garfinkel 1996, 107).

After the war, Garfinkel returned to graduate school at Harvard University. He taught at Princeton while a student and completed his doctorate in 1952. After short-term positions at Ohio State University and Wichita, Garfinkel accepted a position at the University of California-Los Angeles in 1954. He remained there until his retirement in 1987. At this writing, he is still an active professor emeritus. In 1995, he received the Cooley-Mead Award for his lifetime contributions to social psychology. When introducing Garfinkel for that award, Douglas W. Maynard stated, “When scholars of the twenty-first century write the history of twentieth century sociology, Harold Garfinkel will stand out as one of the towering figures” (1996, 2).

Erving Goffman

Erving Goffman (1922-82) was born in Manville, Alberta, Canada. During his first year of university work, Goffman studied chemistry before dropping out to work for the National Film Board in Ottawa. When he returned to school, Goffman completed an undergraduate degree in sociology. He then went to graduate school at the University of Chicago, where he studied both sociology and social anthropology.

Goffman’s dissertation research was conducted in the Shetland Islands. There, he became interested in means of communication between islanders, how his hotel staff interacted with outsiders (including other islanders and tourists), and how they interacted among themselves. His observations formed the basis for his famous dramaturgical concepts of front-stage and back-stage behavior, how people try to control their situations, and their successes and failures in doing so (Burns 1992, 11).

After completing his doctorate in 1953, Goffman took a job as “visiting scientist” at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). In 1957, he joined the Department of Sociology at Berkeley, becoming full professor by 1962. Goffman moved to the University of Pennsylvania in 1968, where he remained until his death from cancer, which occurred the year he was president of the American Sociological Association (Collins 1986, 112).

Goffman has been described as being “difficult to get close to” and having an “acerbic wit” (Martin, Mutchnick, and Austin 1990, 323). Unlike many academics, Goffman’s writing style was easy to read. Most of his work has been published in 11 books. Several of these books received attention beyond the academic community, such as Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959), Stigma (1963b), and Forms of Talk (1981). During the course of his academic career, Goffman focused on themes including social interaction (ranging from talking to oneself to radio and TV broadcasts), the self, and social order (Burns 1992, 8). His unique microsociology “made clear what was previously unknown, pointed to the significance of things which had been regarded as of little or no consequence, and disentangled what was previously an indiscriminate muddle” (Burns 1992, 6).

George Herbert Mead

George Herbert Mead (1863-1931) was a philosopher rather than a sociologist. Mead was an excellent and popular lecturer, but he did not publish often or seek prestigious journals. Mead found expressing his thoughts in the written word to be a difficult effort, even to the point of frustration. His first major paper was not published until he was 40 years old (Coser 1977, 354). He had published only some 30 or so articles and no books at the time of his death (Baldwin 1986, 12). Mead also never completed his Ph.D. However, his influence on sociology, particularly symbolic interactionism, can hardly be overstated.

Mead was born in South Hadley, Massachusetts. His father, a minister, took a position at Oberlin College’s theological seminary. Mead grew up at Oberlin and attended college there. Oberlin was one of the first colleges in the United States that admitted blacks and granted degrees to women. It was also a stop on the Underground Railroad and later a home of the temperance movement (Coser 1977, 341-42).

Mead taught grade school briefly, losing his job amid a controversy surrounding his dismissal of a number of disruptive students. He then worked as a surveyor for the railroad, where he gained an appreciation for the scientific method (Baldwin 1986, 7). He later studied philosophy at Harvard and in Germany (Cook 1993, 1-36).

Mead eventually accepted a position as instructor of philosophy and psychology at the University of Chicago, where he became active in a number of educational advocacy efforts. He was also involved with Jane Addams’s Hull House. In addition, Mead worked with various civic organizations and causes, including labor issues and women’s suffrage.

Mead was interested in a broad range of issues, including philosophy; the physical, biological, and social sciences; mathematics; music; and poetry (Coser 1977, 347). He even “worked on integrating Einstein’s theory of relativity with his own thinking, attempting to bring unity to the entire scientific and pragmatic worldview” (Baldwin 1986, 10). On a personal level, Mead has been described as “kind, cheerful, mild mannered, soft spoken, and with no affection or pretense … [someone] respected and held in high esteem by his colleagues and his students” (Baldwin 1986, 12). He died in 1931 at age 68.

William I. Thomas

William Isaac Thomas (1863-1947) was born in Russell County, Virginia, but moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, as a child. He attended the University of Tennessee, excelling socially and doing well enough academically to remain at the university as an instructor after his 1884 graduation. After interim work and travel, Thomas enrolled in the University of Chicago when the school opened its sociology department. He started teaching for Chicago while still a student. He received a faculty appointment after earning his doctorate in 1896 and was a full professor by 1910.

Thomas focused on ethnographic and comparative studies, teaching courses that would now be called cultural and physical anthropology (Coser 1977, 532). Although he published seven books and 38 articles (Volkart 1968, 2), his renowned work was a sociological look at the lives of Polish immigrants in Chicago, The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (1918-20), which he authored with Florian Znaniecki. During the course of his research, he learned Polish, made several trips to Europe, and produced a final work over 2,000 pages long.

Thomas developed a life-history analysis for which he is now well known. Walking in an alley, he had to step around a bag of garbage being thrown out of a window. The bag spilled open and a letter fell out in front of Thomas. He read it and discovered that it was from a Polish girl who was recounting various family events and concerns. This inspired Thomas to buy letters from Poland and to search Polish newspapers, parish histories, records from immigrant organizations and charities, and Polish diaries as a major part of his research (Coser 1977, 533).

In addition to his academic activities, Thomas was a social activist known for progressive and sometimes unpopular ideas. He was dismissed from the University of Chicago after the Chicago Tribune reported a scandalous story involving Thomas and a woman. He lost a publishing contract for additional volumes of The Polish Peasant, and his name was removed from a work that had been commissioned by the Carnegie Foundation. He taught at the New School for Social Research and then at Harvard, but was unable to ever find another permanent university position. Thomas was, however, able to continue to conduct research through Chicago philanthropist Mrs. W. F. Drummer, grants, and associations with research organizations. He also served as president of the American Sociological Association in 1927 (Coser 1977, 534-36; Volkart 1968). He died in Berkeley, California, when he was 84 years old.