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01.06 Aging and Socialization

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  1. Outline
    1. Nature vs. nurture
      1. Here we will discuss cases of extreme isolation and Dr. Harry Harlow’s research on rhesus monkeys. Both show the importance of nurture for proper development.
    2. Theory of the social self
      1. Mead’s theory of the social self is a developmental stage-model that helps us understand how we are shaped by society.
    3. The life course
      1. In this section we will discuss life stages from childhood to old age and whether or not they are biological or social constructs.
    4. Conclusions
  2. Nature vs. nurture
    1. Socialization is the learning process by which human capacities are shaped during interaction.
    2. Cases of extreme isolation tell us how important nurture is for proper development. Anna, a child in the 40’s was kept in an attic and given only food and water. After discovery by social services she was given extensive rehabilitation but ceased to progress after around age 10. Another girl, Oxana Malaya was left outside by her alcoholic parents and lived with dogs for a few years. She to underwent extensive rehabilitation. However, to this day she must live in a home for the mentally handicapped.
    3. Dr. Harry Harlow’s experiments on rhesus monkeys in the 50’s also give us part of the picture. Dr. Harlow raised monkeys with fake mothers or without any mother at all. He found that in order to properly develop, the monkeys needed more than just food and water. They needed protection, dependability, and love. Bereft of these things monkeys could never developed into normally functioning adults. The logic holds the same for humans.
  3. Theory of the social self
    1. Mead’s model of socialization details how we are shaped by our social surroundings. His model involves 3 stages of development; preparatory stage, play stage, & game stage
      1. Preparatory stage: up till roughly the age of 3, children do little more than mimic those around them.
      2. Play stage: at this stage children begin role-taking, or understanding that other people see the world a bit differently. Usually children here take the role of a single other such as superman or wonder-woman when playing.
      3. Game stage: At this stage children begin to grasp complex relationships and can grasp more than 1 role at a time.
    2. Looking-glass self: this terms refers to how “the self” develops according to Mead. We learn who we are not from within but rather based on how others treat us.
    3. Generalized other: an awareness of society’s expectations as a whole.
  4. Life course
    1. Childhood – roughly first 12 years of life. Western cultures consider this a time to learn and play yet childhood activities vary from one culture to the next.
    2. Adolescence – teenage years; considered a time of emotional and social turmoil and growth. When someone leaves this stage is dependent upon context.
    3. Adulthood – a period of time when responsibilities and family life often take place. Although set in their ways, people still change as circumstances change in adulthood.
    4. Old age – roughly starts in middle 60’s. Today older people are considered as a liability whereas relative to pre-industrial societies old people carried the most prestige and respect.
    5. Although each of these stages is treated as if it is marked biologically, each stage is actually socially constructed. Thus, these stages vary from one society to another.
  5. Conclusions
    1. Nature vs. nurture is an outdated question; the answer is both.
    2. The theory of the social self describes how we are socialized and shaped by our social environment
    3. The life course is a series of life stages that are constructed by society.

Video Transcript

Today we’re going to be talking about the socialization process and the stages of life from childhood to old age.


To start things off we will tackle the age old question of nature vs. nurture. Which contributes more to our development? Secondly, we will tackle a model of socialization from George Herbert Mead. This model will help us understand how we are shaped by our social environment. Next we will discuss something sociologists call the “life course”, which are a series of culturally created life stages which don’t necessarily map onto rigid biological stages of development. We will conclude with main points and important takeaways from today’s lesson.


Before touching on the evidence, let’s first define socialization so that we have that shared understanding. Socialization is the learning process by which human capacities are shaped during interaction. A fundamental question for all of us is are we more a product of our nature/DNA or are we more a product of nurture/social environment. Unfortunate cases of extreme isolation can help us answer this question. One known case is of a child named Anna who was kept in an attic until the age of 6. She received food and water through a small door and received no human interaction whatsoever. She was rescued by social services at the age of 6 and began going through intense rehabilitation. By the age of 10 she had attained the mental score of a 2-year old and all progress had ceased. Another case involves a girl by the name of Oxana Malaya who was forced to live for a few years with dogs after her alcoholic parents abandoned her. She also was eventually discovered and went through extensive rehabilitation but was never able to fully develop. As of today she resides in a home for those with intellectual disabilities. If proper human development was something that simply biological, both Oxana and Anna would have developed normally once they reached a certain age. What their experiences show is that proper development is heavily dependent upon nurture.


Perhaps the best evidence we have for the importance of nurture are the experiments run in the 1950’s by Harry Harlow. Dr. Harlow ran a series of experiments on rhesus monkeys, investigating their development when raised by surrogate mothers made out of wire, and in some cases no mothers at all. While Harlow’s experiments were undoubtedly cruel, they also have had a significant scientific impact. Harlow found that in order for the monkeys to properly develop they needed more than just food and water; they needed shelter, protection, dependability, and most importantly, love and affection. Monkeys that were not nurtured in such a manner were forever developmentally challenged, just as we saw with the human cases of Anna & Oxana.

All told, the nature/nurture question is outdated as we now know the answer is both. However, the important takeaway for sociologists is that proper nurturing is a critical part of human development. Without it, we have no hope of developing into normal, independently functioning adults.


George Herbert Mead is the father of the symbolic interaction perspective which you were introduced to in lesson 2. Remember, this perspective highlights the importance of symbols, their meanings, and the process by which these meanings are generated. When it comes to socialization, the “self” or who we believe ourselves to be is a symbol. And importantly, Mead argues that the self is not something that emerges from within but rather is shaped from without. This is often referred to as the “looking-glass self.” The looking-glass self means who we are is a reflection of how other people treat us. We see our reflection from others and that is how we figure out who our true self is. As such, how we develop involves the gradual incorporation of society’s demands into the self-concept via social interaction. This happens in 3 stages:


The first stage is called the preparatory stage. In this stage children can simply imitate those around them. We often see this when children copy the behaviors of their parents by wearing the same clothes or using the same words. The second stage, called the “play stage” occurs from roughly ages 3-6. In this stage children begin to do something Mead calls role-taking, which means viewing the world through the eyes of someone else. This allows children to not just simply imitate but also begin to understand that other people view the world in a different manner. At this stage you often see children begin to take the role of their favorite superhero such as superman or wonder woman. The 3rd and last stage of development is called the game stage. In this stage, children develop the ability to grasp multiple roles at once and understand how they are all interconnected. My favorite example of the shift from stage 2 to stage 3 is watching children play soccer. If you have ever watched 3, 4, or 5 year olds play soccer you have seen what I like to call “bunch ball.” They all circle around the ball in a big clump and move around like they are all part of the same beehive. It is only once they reach the game stage, that they begin to spread out and recognize that there are different positions to play that interact in useful ways.


One last term to know is the “generalized other.” The generalized other refers to an awareness of the expectations of society as a whole. It can be thought of as the average way in which other people treat and view a person. This begins developing once children reach the game stage. As the generalized other begins to crystalize, a person’s view of who their true self is begins to harden and crystalize as well. As such, Mead argues that society’s demands become internalized and thus how we actually develop is not an inherent, internal product, but rather an external product of all of our experiences and interactions.


In total, Mead argues that the socialization process involves the gradual incorporation of society’s demands into our self-concept via social interaction. As such, who we are is a reflection of society.


When we talk about socialization, we usually focus on what we experience as children. And while the socialization process becomes less powerful as we age, it continues nonetheless. The life course is a term sociologists use to discuss how society tends to organize itself on the basis of various stages; childhood, adolescence; adulthood & old age.


Childhood comprises roughly the first 12 years of life. In the western world we tend to think of childhood as a relatively care-free period in which we begin learning about society but have plenty of free-time to spend for fun. We tend to defend this view of childhood with facts about biological development and progression. Yet, this view of childhood is not universal today nor has it been in our history. During the middle ages it was common for children as young as four or five to be treated as adults and expected to provide for themselves. If we look around the world today we see in many places and primary Asia, many children of young ages working full-time in sweatshops. These children spend their days at work rather than in school.


Adolescence is generally considered to take place during our teenage years and involves emotional and social complexity as people begin to develop a sense of who they are individually. Again, just as with childhood, we tend to justify this understanding with biological facts about development. But as with every stage, adolescence varies according to context. Many lower income individuals move right from high school into full-on adulthood with employment and parenting. Wealthier individuals tend to take a longer transition by going to college, maybe even graduate school, thereby extending their adolescent years perhaps into their 30’s.


Adulthood is a little harder to define, especially if we were relying strictly on biological development. Although we all start to physically decline during this stage, it happens at a different rate for each of us. Even once we reach adulthood and our personalities are generally set in stone, we still change as our circumstances change, i.e. employment, divorce, parenthood, or illness. Early adulthood often involves learning to handle new responsibilities and complexities of our social worlds. Middle age is roughly the period where we consider our lives set and expect little to change.


Old age begins roughly around the mid-60’s. This is a stage that has varied significantly throughout human history. Today we view older individuals as slowing down, and associate them with gray hair, wrinkles, and other physical markers of elder status. Older individuals often face age discrimination as they are viewed as less capable than their adult counterparts. Conversely, iin many pre-industrial societies today and in the past, older individuals are the most prestigious and respected people. This is due in part to their control over land and the cultural wisdom they have learned over their relatively long life spans.


In brief, although we tend to view different life stages in terms of biology, they are actually social constructs. Thus, it is not a surprise that these stages vary from one society to the next and individuals may experience these stages in a vastly different manner than others.


Alright, let’s wrap things up. The nature vs. nurture question has long been put to bed. We know that both contribute to our development with nurture especially playing an important role for humans. George Herbert Mead’s theory of the social self is a stage model of human development. The “preparatory stage” is first and involves children simply copying a single other. The “play stage” involves children developing the ability to role-take, or see the world through someone else’s eyes. The last stage, the “game stage”, involves children being able to grasp multiple roles at once and understand complex relationships. Lastly, the life course involves four stages; childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and old age. While these stages tend to be separated by biological markers, none of these stages are strictly biological and all vary from one culture and context to the next.


We love you guys! Go out and be your best self today! And as always, Happy Nursing!