Part 1

Socialization and Extreme Isolation

On November 4, 1970 a girl was discovered. She had been locked in a room alone for over ten years. She was tied to a potty chair and left to sit alone day after day. At night, she was tied into a sleeping bag which restrained her arms. She was put into an over-sized crib with a cover made of metal screening. Often she was forgotten. On those nights she slept tied to the potty chair.

At first, people could hardly believe that Genie was thirteen years old. While she seemed to understand a few words, the only words she could say were, “stopit” and “nomore.” She had a strange bunny-like walk—she held her hands up in front of her like paws and moved in a halting way. She could not chew solid food and could hardly swallow. She spat constantly. She sniffed. She was not toilet-trained and could not focus her eyes beyond 12 feet. She weighed 59 pounds and was 54 inches tall.

(From Learning About Learning, a teacher’s guide in the Great Explorations in Math and Science (GEMS) series from the Lawrence Hall of Science, copyright by The Regents of the University of California.)

The excerpt above is written about a young girl who had limited contact with humans until the age of thirteen. Genie is a fictitious name given to her to protect her identity. Her mother was partially blind and suffered years of abuse from Genie’s father. Genie was discovered one day when her mother took her to a social worker’s office seeking help after a violent episode had occurred between her and Genie’s father.  Sociologists are interested incases of extreme isolation such as the one above because they illustrate how important socialization and social interaction are for the normal development of humans. Without either, we would not be able to survive.

Socialization is defined as “the process by which a society transmits its cultural values to its members (Thio, 2007).” In cases of extreme isolation, children are not able to perform the most basic of tasks that many of us take for granted. Genie, for instance, was not able to walk upright, talk, feed herself, go to the bathroom by herself, and her physical development was stunted.  As tragic as the case of Genie was, many social scientists have sought to understand the impact of limited human contact on individuals. Many have pointed out that lack of contact with humans causes children to be underdeveloped physically, emotionally, socially and psychologically.

It takes a lot of contact to make a
human being.

This case also brings to life the classic debate of nature vs. nurture. Do we inherit intelligence and other human traits or are they learned? What about gender? Is it learned or do we have some biological predisposition to behave like men and women? There is no way of knowing for sure whether we learn or inherit our traits, but social scientists have conducted numerous experiments throughout the years trying to shed light on this ancient debate.

The primary agent of socialization is the family. We learn cultural values and norms from our family as well as gender roles and religious beliefs. As children, we are completely dependent on the adults in our family for survival. They teach us how to survive in society as well as our place within the community. Often, the lessons we learn were taught to our parents by their parents. These patterns of socialization are passed down through the generations and each family may exhibit similar or different patterns of socialization.

An important part of socialization is identity formation. We learn who we are from our interactions with our significant others and our peers. Through the process of socialization, a personality develops. Even though two children are brought up in the same environment, they often exhibit different patterns of behaviors and attitudes that characterize who they are as individuals. What makes up our identity or our personality has a lot to do with our social interactions as well as the social positions we occupy. When we have interactions with our parents we often learn behaviors from them. We also develop our self esteem through our interactions with parents and peers. Social statuses such as gender, social class and even race or ethnicity play an important part in the formation of our identity.

Fraternal twins: Even though two children
are brought up in the same environment,
they often exhibit different patterns of
behavior and attitudes that characterize
who they are as individuals.

Charles Horton Cooley had this in mind when he came up with the idea of “The Looking Glass Self.” According to Cooley, our image of who we are is reflected to us through our interactions with others. The process of social interaction involves acting and reacting to the behaviors of others. According to Cooley, the “Looking Glass Self” involves three important steps:

  1. Imagining our appearance to others.
  2. Imagining how that person judges our appearances.
  3. Having a self-feeling of either pride or shame.

If we believe that others view us favorably, we are more likely to have a sense of pride about who we are as individuals. If we believe others do not view us favorably, we have a sense of shame or embarrassment. Often, we will try to change our behavior or appearance in order to please those around us. This is why so many individuals conform under group pressure.

George Herbert Mead had another idea about the steps involved in the socialization process. He pointed out that an important part of socialization is learning the process of role taking.  Through the process of role taking, we become aware of behaviors associated with certain statuses and begin to act them out. For Mead, this is the most fundamental aspect of socialization. Children learn early on that all behaviors are symbolic. When someone is upset with us, they use a certain tone of voice to convey their feelings. Children learn the symbolic meaning behind these behaviors and eventually begin to act them out as they get older. Mead said this takes place in three stages:

1. The Imitation Stage.  This is when children learn to mimic the behaviors of those around them. They smile at you when you smile at them. They might wave their hand at you if they see you wave. At this stage, children are usually not aware of the meaning behind the behaviors but more than likely are aware that parents are pleased when they mimic them.

2. The Play Stage.  This is the stage where children become aware of patterns of behaviors exhibited by their significant others. Children who play “house,” for instance, know that their mother behaves in a different way than their father. For instance, Mom cooks, and Dad disciplines the children. They might even be aware of the behavior of a younger or older sibling at this stage.

3. The Game Stage.  This is the final stage of socialization and continues throughout our lives. During this stage, children not only learn the role of their significant others, but of the generalized other. Mead referred to the “generalized other” as all of the roles in society. He used the term “game stage” because he noticed that when children begin to play sports, they become aware of the different positions each person has to play. They must anticipate what each player will do when a play occurs. In other words, they have to take the role of more than one person at a time. They also learn to engage in taking the role with their coach. Usually, this is learned when they make a mistake and the coach lets them in on it. . Normally, when children begin to play sports, they do not understand the generalized other. They might pay more attention to their family who is watching from the sidelines. But usually they will catch on by the end of the season. This process will continue throughout their lives as they transition in and out of different roles in society.