Socialization is the process by which a society’s culture—its values and norms—is taught and learned and human personalities are developed. Personality is a set of behavioral and emotional characteristics that describe one’s reactions to various situations or events.
Although some aspects of the personality are present at birth, environmental factors also shape and influence personality development. Genetics undoubtedly plays a critical role in laying the foundation of an individual personality, but the extent to which any of the traits or talents that make up that personality—for example, competitiveness, assertiveness, shyness—are expressed has much to do with the environment in which the individual lives. Although socialization begins at birth and one of the most important agents of socialization is the family, socialization is a process that continues throughout life. What one learns may vary at different stages of the lifespan, but one continues to learn and respond to the values and norms of one’s culture until the end of life. Moreover, theorists of socialization maintain that regardless of the individual’s age, the learning or socialization process is the same.
In applying the concept of socialization to interpersonal violence, one may say most simply that violent behavior is learned, and it is learned much the same way other behaviors are learned—that is, through interaction with others. More specifically, individuals who behave violently have had contact with other people who also behave violently and who have ready justifications for their violence in particular situations. This contact may be direct (e.g., the learner personally knows the model, or socializer, and witnesses the model’s violent behavior) or it may be indirect (e.g., the learner is exposed to the model’s violent behavior through the media, such as a newscast, a film, or a television program). In any event, the behavior is perceived as desirable or justified given the specific situation, and it results in a reward for the model (e.g., the model achieves a desired outcome or avoids an undesired outcome), which serves to reinforce the use of violence in similar future situations.
Criminologist Ronald Akers uses the example of rape to illustrate the basic principles of this theory. Akers points out that an individual who spends most of his time with people (e.g., family members, peers) who are sexually conforming, who do not engage in violence themselves, and who condemn such behavior, is unlikely to commit rape. However, if an individual spends most of his time with people who have themselves sexually coerced others and who accept or approve of such behavior, that individual is likely to behave similarly—that is, commit rape—if the opportunity arises. The more rewards the individual receives for the behavior (e.g., sexual gratification, control of women, approval of friends), the more likely he will commit another rape under similar circumstances in the future. The attitudes and beliefs that support and reinforce the behavior may come from personal associates, but they may also come from less personal, cultural sources (e.g., rape myths prevalent in the society’s culture that excuse or justify rape or that neutralize the deviant or criminal nature of the behavior).
The notion that violent behavior is learned through socialization has received considerable support in empirical research. Of course, one important implication of this research is that if violent behavior is learned, nonviolent behavior can also be learned. Nonviolent models are needed for nonviolent socialization, and individual as well as cultural attitudes and beliefs that condemn violence must replace those attitudes and beliefs supportive or accepting of violence. However, this perspective of violent behavior has also been criticized for depicting learners as passive recipients of socialization messages who unquestioningly model whoever they see around them. Socialization is not a unilateral process by which learners are shaped and molded by the models in their environment. There is considerable evidence that individuals actively seek out and evaluate the behavior of models and the information in their social environment. Furthermore, changes in socialization practices are not likely to be effective without simultaneous changes in social structure that promote equality and human rights and that devalue or condemn violence and a “mightmakes-right” culture.
- Akers, R. L., & Silverman, A. L. (2004). Toward a social learning model of violence and terrorism. In M. A. Zahn, H. H. Brownstein, & S. L. Jackson (Eds.), Violence: From theory to research. Cincinnati, OH: LexisNexis.
- Barak, G. (2003). Violence and nonviolence: Pathways to understanding. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
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