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Some thoughts on socialization and personhood

The traditional conception of socialization rests on the assumption that socialization is simply a matter of internalization. Dispositions which ‘fit’ the subject’s social placement are internalised from the social. Exactly what the socialising agent is called varies e.g. family, schooling, class. Behind this divergence about socialising agents is a convergence about how the subject is construed: the process is conceptualised as an entirely passive one, as a pre-social subject is progressively assimilated into the social.

Part of the problem here is the severely impoverished view of the intrapersonal which has tended to dominate sociological theory. What little recognition the intrapersonal receives has tended to focus, presumably as a result of the influence of psychoanalytical thought and continental philosophy, on the psychic life of the subject. But this produces a truncated view of human personhood: psychic life ‘in here’ and social life ‘out there’ with a mysterious gap which demands to be filled. The easiest way to do this has been to either (a) ignore the intrapersonal together as being beyond the domain of sociology (b) postulate a mechanism which functions at the intrapersonal level which accounts for subject’s ‘socialisation’.

We need to move away from a model of socialisation which sees it as being a matter of assimilating the person-to-be to social life. This isn’t denying the efficacy of socialisation processes as traditionally construed (although it is claiming that they obtain less-and-less the increasing rate of social change) but rather arguing that socialization must be understood as a multi-dimensional process within which a range of factors, over time and in a path-dependent way, interact with an internally differentiated subject:

Part of the apparent passivity that characterises socialization in early life is the relatively weak role that reflexivity plays in the process i.e. comparing one’s objective circumstances to one’s subjective concerns in order to decide what to do. Social and cultural factors act on the subject and the subject reacts: impulsively, unthinkingly, habitually. However even in early life, a nascent capacity for reflexivity manifests itself as soon as a subject begins to have concerns relating to their experiences i.e. as soon as they come to care one way or another about aspects of their environment. The fact that obvious reflexivity, in the adult sense, doesn’t begin to develop until adolescence (and in many cases adulthood) means that this process appears passive. But my contention is that childhood involves increasingly complex emotional responses to an environment, as well as ever increasing awareness both of these responses (knowledge about the self) and the ways in which the environment produces them (knowledge about society). Construing socialisation as passive completely misrepresents (a) the developmental trajectory which leads to the possibility of ‘being active’ as an adult (b) the nature of that ensuing adult agency itself.

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