In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Socialization

  • Introduction
  • General Texts and Overviews: Childhood in Cultural Context
  • Rites of Passage
  • Language Socialization
  • Emotion, Morality, and Selfhood
  • Socializing Caretakers
  • Play and Child-to-Child (Peer) Socialization
  • Schools
  • Work
  • Kinship and the State
  • Religion
  • Suffering and Healing
  • Children in Difficult Circumstances
  • Perspectives from Biological Anthropology

Anthropology Socialization
Bambi Chapin, Christine El Ouardani, Kathleen Barlow
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 January 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 January 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0133


Socialization refers to the process through which people develop culturally patterned understandings, behaviors, values, and emotional orientations. The meaning of the term overlaps with “enculturation” (the process through which children first internalize culture), “acculturation” (the process through which people adopt new cultural models and ways of behaving), and “subject formation” (the process through which subjectivity is shaped). Although much of the literature on socialization has focused on childhood and adolescence, the development and socialization of the individual continues throughout the life course—a life course in which stages such as childhood, adolescence, and adulthood are themselves culturally variable. Early work on the topic of socialization attended to what was done to novices in order to mold their behavior and instill cultural beliefs and values. More recent work has recognized that socialization is an active process through which children and other novices develop particular patterns of thinking, behaving, and feeling in interaction with others. In this process, novices are active agents, interpreting, developing responses, and pursuing their own goals, although this work is not necessarily done consciously. The interactions through which people are socialized may occur as part of marked rituals, structured institutional involvement, or informal everyday activities. They may produce outcomes that socializers desire, but this is not always the case. Recent work has also emphasized the way in which these socializing interactions are historically situated within changing social, economic, and political processes. While anthropologists have done much work investigating and conceptualizing socialization as a process that varies across cultural contexts, developmental psychologists, educators, and sociologists—some of whom are included in this article—have also contributed to this effort. In what follows, significant works on socialization within anthropology are grouped according to central themes. Issues of gender, race/ethnicity, and class are addressed in many of the texts and cut across thematic groupings. Some of the authors of the texts included here would not necessarily position themselves as studying “socialization”; however, they all provide important accounts of how people are shaped through interaction in a necessarily social world.

General Texts and Overviews: Childhood in Cultural Context

While there are no significant comprehensive texts that review the anthropological literature or approaches to socialization, there are several recent overviews of anthropological work on children and childhood, including Lancy 2008, Montgomery 2009, and Schwartzman 2001. Other work such as Shweder, et al. 2009 documents the diversity in children’s lives across the world. Examining these lives in diverse contexts has long been a focus of ethnographic work, as Levine 2007 documents and discusses in its relationship with theories from developmental psychology. Such cross-cultural work offers a more comprehensive view of the potential paths of human development and its cultural shaping, as described in work by both anthropologists (in LeVine and New 2008) and psychologists (in Göncü 1999). Other anthropological work on children, such as that included in Stephens 1995 has focused on the political dimensions of children’s lives. Recent anthropological work with children and youth has increasingly recognized children as cultural actors and agents in their own rights, something Montgomery 2009 highlights. In addition to these general texts on childhood, there are texts that focus on specific aspects of socialization included under more focused sections below. One of these is Duranti, et al. 2012, which presents work within the field of language socialization (cited under Language Socialization). Another is Konner 2010 (cited under Perspectives from Biological Anthropology), which provides an overview of the evolutionary dimensions of human development as responsive to social interaction. The books in the Childhood Studies series from Rutgers University Press and the listings in the Oxford Bibliography in Childhood Studies are excellent resources for further work on children, youth, and childhood. The Anthropology of Children and Youth Interest Group of the American Anthropological Association may also serve as a resource and reflects emergent interest in children and youth.

  • Anthropology of Children and Youth Interest Group.

    This interest group of the American Anthropological Association was formed in 2007, bringing together anthropologists from a range of subdisciplines whose work focuses on children and youth.

  • Childhood Studies Book Series. 2003–. Rutgers Univ. Press.

    This series includes peer-reviewed books written from a variety of disciplinary perspectives that investigate the lives and perspectives of children and youth in diverse cultural settings, both past and present.

  • Göncü, Artin, ed. 1999. Children’s engagement in the social world: Sociocultural perspectives. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    This volume of essays by psychologists and others presents research from a range of societies. They examine cultural influences on child development as expressed through parental values and in various social contexts such as family, home, play, and preschool.

  • Lancy, David. 2008. The anthropology of childhood: Cherubs, chattel, changelings. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Lancy draws together key findings from anthropological research on children and childhood around the world, establishing that the way children are understood and treated in the contemporary West is but one variant of a much larger set of possibilities enacted in societies across time and space.

  • LeVine, Robert A. 2007. Ethnographic studies of childhood: A historical overview. American Anthropologist 109.2: 247–260.

    DOI: 10.1525/aa.2007.109.2.247

    LeVine surveys ethnographic research literature on childhood in the 20th century, and theoretical approaches that were sometimes incorporated into and also critiqued through ethnography. LeVine points to the ongoing problematic relationship between ethnography and developmental psychology and calls for theory building that draws substantially on cross-cultural comparison.

  • LeVine, Robert A., and Rebecca S. New, eds. 2008. Anthropology and child development: A cross-cultural reader. Malden MA: Blackwell.

    This edited volume offers an excellent selection of early seminal works in the field complemented by contemporary contributions from diverse cultural contexts. The sections are organized according to three phases of childhood and deal primarily with work, play, language and caregiving by parents and siblings.

  • Montgomery, Heather. 2009. An introduction to childhood: Anthropological perspectives on children’s lives. Chichester, West Sussex, UK: Blackwell.

    Montgomery provides overviews of different dimensions of childhood and the range of cultural variation presented in the ethnographic literature. Through cultural and historical perspectives on meanings and contexts that shape children’s lives, she develops a larger framework for the current focus on children’s perspectives on their own lives.

  • Schwartzman, Helen B., ed. 2001. Children and anthropology: Perspectives for the 21st century. Westport, CT: Bergin and Garvey.

    This edited volume brings together work on children by anthropologists writing from a range of interests and drawing on diverse ethnographic and material evidence. Together, these chapters argue that the study of children is a particularly promising way to address key questions in contemporary anthropology.

  • Shweder, Richard A., Thomas R. Bidell, Anne C. Dailey, Suzanne D. Dixon, Peggy J. Miller, and John Modell, eds. 2009. The child: An encyclopedic companion. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226756110.001.0001

    This encyclopedia covers a broad range of subjects having to do with children, childhood, and parenting. This includes forty-one “Imagining Each Other” essays, which are cross-cultural vignettes of different socialization contexts and strategies.

  • Stephens, Sharon, ed. 1995. Children and the politics of culture. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    This edited volume calls anthropological attention to the ways that children’s lives are shaped by the political actions of adults and state policies, economic orders, transnational flows, rights discourses, and identity movements that children are also subject to.

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