Why are people the way they are? Are people the way they are because of heredity? Is biology our destiny? Is it nature that matters? Or are people the way they are because of the experiences they have had and the people they know? Is it nurture that matters? Well, the truth of the matter is that both nature and nurture affect how we act, think, and feel. Biologists spend their time demonstrating that nature matters, while sociologists spend their time showing that nurture does too. Studies of isolated children, children in institutions, and feral children show us that in order to learn to act like human beings, to be healthy, and even to survive, we have to interact with other people. Being born or even “having good genes” does not guarantee these things. This makes social interaction a very important process to understand.
As we interact with other people, we simultaneously struggle to get our meaning across and to understand what the other people are saying. For example, imagine two teenagers interacting while driving home from a date. Let’s call them Chris and Alex. Chris says: “We just don’t spend enough time together. You are always out with your friends. I don’t feel like you love me.” Alex responds: “That is ridiculous. I spent a lot of time with you this week. We walked together between classes, sat together at lunch, and we just spent hours at a movie. What more do you want?” Chris dissolves into tears and Alex is totally confused. They have failed to communicate. Why? Well, notice that I did not say whether Chris and Alex were male and female. They could have been Christopher and Alexander or Christine and Alexandra. The way they interacted gave away their genders though. Sociologist Deborah Tanner would say that Chris and Alex speak different genderlects. Chris speaks “female;” she was desperately trying to communicate her feelings to Alex. Alex, on the other hand, speaks “male.” He was so busy making sure Chris got the facts straight that he totally missed what she meant. She wanted to be told he loved her, not that she wasn’t accurate.
Sometimes we try to communicate with words, but other times we communicate with gestures. Words and gestures are both examples of symbols, things that mean other things. George Herbert Mead, one of the early symbolic interactionists, pointed out that we cannot communicate at all with people until the symbols we use mean the same thing to us as they mean to them. For example, imagine you are a little kid again, riding in the backseat of a car. You see a car behind you covered with Marine stickers. To be funny, you flash the old man who is driving the other car a peace sign. In response, he raises his index and middle fingers to form a “V.” You are really surprised, because you assumed he would be pro-war. The joke is on you though. He is pro-war. To him, the gesture he used symbolizes “V for Victory,” which is what it meant during World War II. It didn’t mean “Peace” until the 1960’s. Once again, communication has failed.
Symbolic interaction is not only interesting because it helps us understand communication failures though. It is important because as we interact with people we reach conclusions about our social world—together we socially construct reality. This means the people in our lives have a huge influence over us. Have you ever wondered why everyone doesn’t belong to the same religion, register with the same political party, dress the same way, or enjoy the same activities? Now you know the answer. It is because they have interacted with different people and have had different experiences. Sociologists would say that the socialization processes they experienced were different and as a result they have different ideas about what is good, bad, hip, nerdy, righteous, and wrong. This is why we sometimes have difficulty getting along with people of different ethnicities, from different parts of the country, from different religious backgrounds, and so forth. We just don’t see reality the same way.
George Herbert Mead compares what happens as we are socialized as members of society to learning to play baseball. He says that it is only after we know what to expect from each player that we can play the game. For example, if you don’t know that the pitcher is going to throw the ball to a teammate on first base after you have hit the ball, you might not run fast enough to get there and be safe. Similarly, we can’t play the game of life until we have some sense of how society works. Until we know what teachers, police officers, and parents are likely to do in a given situation, we don’t know what to do ourselves. George Herbert Mead goes on to say that when we have internalized the organized set of expectations others have of us (a.k.a., the generalized other), we are mature. In other words, we are fully socialized into society.
One thing that is really scary about socialization is that it happens without us noticing. We interact with people, we imitate them, and the next thing you know we are like them. The whole time we think we are making up our own minds. But as George Herbert Mead points out, once we have been fully socialized and what others expect of us is second nature and no longer feels like it is imposed from the outside, our community has control over us. Now that you understand socialization, you probably have a better understanding of why your parents worry so much about who your friends are and what you do in your spare time. They are worried that if you hang with people who aren’t like them or get involved in things that aren’t familiar to them, eventually you won’t be like your parents anymore. It makes sense they are worried about you. In fact, maybe you should be worried about your parents. Socialization doesn’t stop when you become adults. Do you know where your parents are and what they are doing? Wherever they are and whatever they are doing, they are being socialized into new roles and new ways of doing things.
Another scary thing about socialization is that it affects our sense of self. Charles Horton Cooley explained this pretty clearly by comparing our sense of self to what happens when we look in a mirror (he actually called it a “looking glass” because that is what they called mirrors back when he was writing about this over a hundred years ago). Imagine a girl getting ready to attend prom. She looks in the mirror and thinks about what her boyfriend will see when he looks at her. “He is going to notice I have on a new dress, have my hair in an up-do, am wearing finger nail polish, and am wearing make-up.” Then she thinks about what he will think about her appearance: “He is going to think I look really gorgeous.” Finally she thinks about how she feels as a result. “I am really proud of the way I look.” She wouldn’t have any sense of self if it weren’t for society. She would not know how to evaluate her appearance or anything else. As Cooley points out, she wouldn’t have a sense of “I” without having a sense of “you” or “they.”
We are not mere puppets of society though. We can exert some influence over what people think about us. Symbolic interactionist Irving Goffman used a metaphor for society too. Instead of comparing it to a baseball game or a mirror he compared it to a play. This is why his type of sociology is called dramaturgical analysis. He said that when we are backstage, we relax and act like ourselves, but when we are front stage we use impression management. In other words, we call attention to certain aspects of our performance and we hide others. We might even misrepresent ourselves. Think back to the girl getting ready for the prom. She waits until her date arrives and then slowly walks down the stairs so he has plenty of time to see how beautiful she looks. Her bad acne is covered with make-up. Her high heels make her look taller and thinner. The weave in her hair makes it look fuller and healthier. Instead of yelling at her boyfriend for being late as she normally would, she smiles at him, showing her newly whitened teeth. She has managed the impression he has of her. He is putty in her hands.
Not all sociologists wear the same theoretical lenses when they examine socialization. Symbolic interactionists, who think about socialization more than other sociologists, are mainly interested in how we develop our self-images and views of reality as we interact with each other. Functionalists emphasize the importance of socialization for ensuring that the social order continues from one generation to the next. They see it as a positive force, leading to continuity and stability. Conflict theorists worry that those in power control how we are socialized and what we are expected to do. They worry that poor people, minorities, women, and other less powerful groups will be punished more or rewarded less because they act the way they were raised to act instead of the way those in power think people should act. Whatever theoretical lens they use, however, sociologists all agree that society exercises a great deal of control over who we are and what we think, do, and feel. Doesn’t this make you glad you will understand society better by the time you finish this course?