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Socialisation is the lifelong process by which human behaviour is shaped through experience in social institutions (e.g. family, which is a crucial factor in primary socialisation). Through socialization, individuals learn the values, norms (formal and informal rules), and beliefs of a given society. In considering the nature of the self, it is necessary to include a still more fundamental social scientific issue – the extent to which human beings are being formed by biological inheritance (i.e. genetic determinism), or through socialisation (i.e. cultural determinism); the issue called nature-nurture debate.
Another way to put this is the difference between instinct and learned behaviour, where instinct is inherited, and learned behaviour acquired through socialisation. Sociologists does not really consider instinctive behaviour; therefore, most sociologists would only accept there are inborn needs of food, shelter and sex. Other than these three, sociologists prefer the fact that human behaviour is shaped by social experience rather than that it is biologically ‘given’. However, although the direction of sociology is towards social explanation, there is no contradiction between social and biological explanations of behaviour. It is just a matter of empirical research by biologists, sociologists, social biologists and by other relevant subject specialists to find explanations of human behaviour.
According to sociologist Charles Cooley, there are two types of socialisation: primary and secondary. Those factors that are involved in primary socialisation are usually small, involve face-to-face interaction and communication and allow the individual to express the whole self, both feelings and intellect. Usually, those factors are the family, peer groups, of close friends and closely-knit groups of neighbours. Within these groups, through personal experience, the individual learns ‘primary values’ such as love, loyalty, justice, sharing, and etc. Freud claimed that the first few years of a person’s life – those usually spent amongst primary groups – are the most important in forming the structure of the person’s character.
In contrast, secondary groups are usually large, more impersonal and formally organised, and exist for specific purposes. In the secondary stage, the individual learns by himself or herself more values and norms which are to be applied for the individual to fit in. This includes learning how to organise and conduct oneself in formal contexts (backgrounds) and how to behave towards people who have different degrees of status and authority. One of the crucial agents of secondary socialisation is school. Trade unions and professional associations, also secondary socialisation agents, can affect an individual’s behaviour when an individual agrees to conform to the beliefs, aims and regulations of the organisation. Therefore, indirectly, the individual accepts a socialising influence on his or her conduct.
In both primary and secondary groups, the mass media (e.g. radio, television, the cinema) also plays a vital part in socialising individuals. For example during primary socialisation, by watching certain cartoons, a child (although indirectly) can already be socialised of his or her gender roles, such as patriarchal ideology (e.g. where the cartoon might portray the girl as the weaker one, always being bullied and being the helpless, damsel in distress; while the boy will then be the hero). Later, during secondary socialisation, magazines (a form of mass media) can also reinforce gender roles such as saying that girls must learn to cook so that they could cook for their husbands later in marriage.
One way of studying the role of society in shaping human behaviour is to examine the development of individuals who were either completely or nearly excluded from any social interaction for a period of their lives. This includes cases of those who spent most of their childhood isolated from others in the wild (such as the ‘Wild boy of Aveyron’ and the two girls, ‘Wolf children of Bengal’) and those who were cut off from others through confinement (imprisonment), also during childhood (such as the cases of Anna and Isabelle). The case of the wolf children revealed that their behaviour was very similar to the wolves that had apparently raised them. They preferred raw meat, moved on all fours and lacked any form of speech. There is a more recent case described by O’Donnell where a 14 year old boy found in the Syrian desert had exceptional speed and had adopted some of the behavioural characteristics of the gazelles he was found with.