Part 2b-Socialisation, Norms and Values

Learning To Be Human: Culture and Socialisation

A culture can be defined as a way of like that is transferred from one generation to the next. In this respect culture consists of two main elements; the material culture (physical objects) reflecting a societies interests and preoccupations and non-material culture consisting of the knowledge and beliefs that influence behaviour.

As sociologists we are more interested in the non-material culture of a society, and how it is learnt and taught. Linton (1945) defines the concept of non-material culture as:

The way of life of its members; the collective ideas and habits which we learn, share and transmit from generation to generation.”

The idea that non-material culture is taught and learnt is crucial to understanding how people learn to become human beings as we know them. People are born into a pre-existing cultural system and in order to learn how to behave in society people must fit into existing patterns of behaviour. We call this socialisation.

The Socialisation Process

Socialisation is the process of learning how to become human and behave in ways which are acceptable to the expectations in others. As a process it begins at birth and continues throughout our lifespan. We never stop learning how to behave due to the ever changing nature of the society in which we live and due to new situations we made find ourselves in. There are two main types of socialisation.

Primary Socialisation

Primary socialisation occurs between the individual and those people in their life with whom they have primary relationships. A primary relationship can be categorised as one in which the individual has close, personal, face-to-face contact. The first primary relationship that the vast majority of us form is with our parents or guardians with whom our first primary socialisation will occur. As we develop and age we form primary relationships with close friends, and other adults through work, marriage etc.

We call the people responsible for socialisation, agents of socialisation and by extension we can talk about agencies of socialisation such as the family, the education system, the workplace and so on. In this way the first agency responsible for primary socialisation is the family and the agents of socialisation are a child’s parents. Through primary socialisation a child learns things such as talking and walking as well as values such as the difference between right and wrong and how to act appropriately with others such as adults and authority figures.

Secondary Socialisation

Secondary socialisation occurs between the individual and those people in their lives with whom they have secondary relationships. A secondary relationship being one in which the individual does not have close, personal, or face-to-face contact with. Through secondary socialisation we learn about the nature of the social world beyond our primary relationships.

The agencies of secondary socialisation are things such as the education system, religion and the mass media. Agents of secondary socialisation therefore are found in the form of teachers, priests and television personalities. Talcott Parsons claimed that one of the main purposes of secondary socialisation is to:

“Liberate the individual from a dependence upon the primary attachments and relationships formed within the family group.”

Effectively Parsons states that in modern societies the vast majority of our social contact will be with strangers and relating to them in the same way as we do those who are familiar or close to us would be inappropriate. Secondary socialisation allows us to learn how to deal with people in terms of what they can do for us, or what we can do for them.

Harold Garfinkel
Harold Garfinkel

The Structure of Social Life: Values, Norms, Roles and Status

“Societies work or function because each individual member of that society plays particular roles and each role carries a status and norms which are informed by the values and beliefs of the culture of that society. The process of learning these roles and the norms and values appropriate to them from those around us is called socialisation.” Barnard and Burgess (1996) “Sociology Explained”


Talcott Parsons wrote that all human societies have certain problems that have to be solved if life is to be maintained. Such problems can be approached and solved in a variety of ways, and the choice of how to solve them is governed by our values.

Values are beliefs that we all have about what is important both on an individual and societal level. A value therefore is a belief (whether right or wrong) about the way something should be. An example of a value might be that is better for a child to be raised by its natural mother and father than for society to take responsibility. Furthermore, the Ten Commandments from Christianity can also be considered values.

Some values are personal to us as individuals whereas others are more widely held by large groups. In such an instance, values my become morals; that is, they become absolute and of fundamental importance that we believe everyone should hold the same values. For example, the moral belief that killing is wrong.

It is therefore apparent that values by definition involve judgements, be they personal or societal. Values are general guidelines to behaviour which tell us what is right or wrong. On the other hand, they do not tell us what is right and wrong in specific situations but in a more overall kind of way. For how to behave in specific situations we are guided by norms.


Norms (short for normative or normal) are expected, socially acceptable ways of behaving in a given social situation. Like values they differ from person to person and society to society.

“While norms are specific rules dictating how people should act in a particular situation, values are general ideas that support the norm.” Thio “Sociology”

We use the term norms loosely, but there are three distinguishable types. Firstly folkways are weak norms such as responding when someone says hello to you. Failure to follow this norm will have no implications except that the other person may consider you rude. Secondly, there are mores which are a stronger type of norm and will result in a stronger social response, for example telling a teacher to “bugger off”. The third and final type of norm is laws. A law is an expression of a very strong moral norm that exists to control people’s behaviour.

The idea of norms is useful in two ways. Primarily they show the ways in which human behaviour is structured and secondly they highlight how society can be seen as a force as when we disrupt the normative expectations of society we can measure the effects on people’ behaviour.

Disrupting Norms of Behaviour

The American sociologist Harold Garfinkel studied the existence of norms and the what happens when we break or disrupt them. He asked his students to take part in a series of experiments where they would deliberately (but secretly) break some expected norms. He asked, that when they returned home during their break from University that they behave towards their parents as lodgers rather than sons and daughters. In this role they were to behave politely, but show no recognition that they had met their parents before.

As you’d expect the parents of these students found the situation very difficult to cope with. They had no idea how or why their children were suddenly acting like strangers and in a number of cases concluded that they were ill or even mad!

Such experiments in disrupting normative behaviour show how important norms are to everyday life even though we often don’t even think about them.


In putting the ideas I’ve written about together we can see that things people value and the way they obey and express these values gives us the concept of a culture. In its most simplistic form then we can say a culture is a general way of life characteristic of a particular society. A culture therefore represents all of the norms and values that people in the society share.

An Example of Harold Garfinels Norm Disruption Experiment

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    While we belong to one large culture, of more interest is the way our culture is broken down into groups of more specific norms and values. While we share many overarching norms and values there are many which we do...

Comments 3 comments

hillary 4 years ago

it help,these notes,as am a new student of sociology! Thanks!

Jo 4 years ago

Very nice we need more on roles & status

Kitur wesly. country kenya 4 years ago have save me a animals also socialize themselves

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