Television as an Agency of Socialization

Pablo J Perez-Ortiz

In Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel Brave New World the author imagined an apocalyptic future in which children were socially conditioned through the repetition of subliminal messages in music they listened to during their sleep. However, as Huxley notes in his essay Brave New World Revisited, those messages could only be basic patterns for the children’s social interaction and never of a great complexity, as if the author was foreseeing the upcoming social effects of mass media in children and young receptors (Buckingham 1993: 8). Most of the research carried in the specific area of television viewing and the socialization of young children shows that children socially benefit from watching educational programming, as well as perhaps suffering from watching violent programming (see Anderson 2001: 132). Significantly, these research studies stress the theory that it is not television as a medium that has an influence in children’s socialization, but rather the content of the programming they watch, their active engagement while they watch it and other external issues such as who they watch television with. Therefore, as in Huxley’s novel, children can only gain vague social patterns form television viewing. Hence, the aim of this essay is to acknowledge the fact that the content of television can be considered as an instrument of socialization of our society, as watching television is highly linked to most children’s early development. Using McQuail’s Mass Communication Theory and DeFleur & Ball-Rokeach’s work on media, socialization and their account on the theories of indirect influences as a framework, this essay will attempt to demonstrate to what extend is television a major agency of socialization in Western societies, discussing and investigating the approaches and issues around this topic with a specific case study.


Firstly, what is socialization? In the given context, DeFleur defines socialization as a complex, long-term, and multidimensional set of communicative exchanges between individuals and various agents of society that result in the individual’s preparation for life in a sociocultural environment (DeFleur1989: 209). This preparation or induction to social life takes place in the infancy of the individual and derives from different agencies that converge in the child’s reasoning, perception and interaction with the surrounding world. These agencies alternate between the parents, family and social groups sphere on one side, to the child’s exposure to media on the other. Yet, the views and the validity of this definition vary, as Buckingham argues that the socialization theory is ‘a functional approach that regards children as passive recipients of external social forces rather than active participants in the construction of their own social lives and identities’ (Buckingham 1993:14). However, the approches to socialization vary from the anthropological point of view to the more Freudian one. The first refers to the process as enculturation which consists in the individual’s internalisation of ‘all aspects of their culture’ (DeFleur & Ball-Rokeach 1989: 209) such as traditions, language and common discourses. The media has its importance in this view, for it can teach the child about the nature of his or her social order (ibid). On the other hand, psychologists see socialization as an inner process that one must acquire in order to control inborn drives that ‘would lead to socially unacceptable behaviour’ (ibid). The role of the media in this case can be considered as highly important, for the negative aspects that explicit exposition of adult issues can cause in the child’s future development. Finally, the sociological belief is that ‘socialization prepares individuals for participation in group life’ (ibid: 210). Issues of media and representation take an active role in this approach, which can be addressed to the argument of television as a socialization agency. Therefore, taking socialization as a communicative process rather than an isolated effect on the individual, a distinct approach has to be taken by researchers to analyse the impact of television in viewers’ social attitudes, also known as the cultivation theory.

Cultivation theory and socialization

Cultivation theory supports to a larger extent the hypothesis of television as a socialization agency. To describe cultivation theory and on the most hypothetical of the extremes we could devise an experiment in which a subject is isolated, with the only company of a television. How will that person respond when placed in the reality of society? For cultivation theorists, the heavy consumption of media in general and television in particular ‘leads to the adoption of beliefs about the nature of the social world which conform to the stereotyped, distorted and very selective view of reality as portrayed in a systematic way in television fiction and news’ (McQuail 2000: 465). Furthermore, cultivation theorists argue that television has long-term effects, which are ‘small, gradual, indirect but cumulative and significant’. Theorists distinguish between ‘first order’ effects (general beliefs about the everyday world, such as about the prevalence of violence) and ‘second order’ effects (specific attitudes, such as to law and order or to personal safety) (Chandler 1997)

However, there are other theoretical considerations, criticisms and assumptions that arise from the cultivation theory, and which are mainly addressed in the work of Huston and Wright (in MacBeth 1996:38). Cultivation theory needs to rely on other approaches such as the influence of the family, the child’s cognitive development, the amount and most importantly the type of television the child views... to fully understand the socialization development of the subject. Therefore many different levels of analysis - sociocultural, social institutions, family, and individual (ibid: 44) take place along the utilisation of the cultivation theory. Furthermore, other theorists reject the use of these ‘intervening variables’ (Buckingham 1993:15) in favour of the cognitive capabilities of children, in relation to what has been cautiously noted as ‘television literacy’. As children do not submit passively against the fictional - or real - representations seen on television, they process that information and make sense of it on one way or another. Further studies on television literacy link television viewing with academic performance of the viewer and other social habits (see Neuman 1991). This theory concludes that in some cases television viewing acts as a replacement to other activities, while in other cases television acts as an aid to the personal development of the child (Newman 1991:110).

Hence, socialization in a group of individuals can be measured in different ways, through the application of these theories and the continued observation of the effects of television, along with the observation of the individuals’ viewing patterns and other external agencies - or what McQuail refers to as cultivation analysis: ‘relationships between exposure to television’s message and audience beliefs and behaviour’ (2000: 465).

Social Organization Theory

The other major theory in the study of television as a main agency of socialization is social organization theory. As a social group develops through the interaction and socialization of its members, a series of events are repeated and transmited from generation to generation. Those events, that can be divided into norms, rules, ranking and sanctions, are the driving motives for the actions of each individual within the social group. Therefore, before the individual takes the initiative towards an action, he or she will be comparing his or her actions to the ones of the fellow members of the group. This equilibrium through the mere imitation of actions is, in very broad terms, the basis of any given social group. Each member of the family has a determined social niche. This is, each member has a role with its significant levels of discourse in accordance to the other members of the group (father, mother, son), working in what DeFleur and Ball-Rokeach call ‘a set of specialized and interdependent roles, like the parts of a machine or an organic system’ (DeFleur & Ball-Rokeach 1989: 222). Eventually, one piece of that system will replace the other but in the meantime each individual must hold to his or her determined position in the group, just expecting to step further in this invisible hierarchy of the society. the way in which this theory is linked to media studies, television viewing and socialization is thoguh the proposition that television conveys information regarding rules of social conduct that the individual remembers and that directly shapes overt behaviour (Ibid: 225). It has been proved that young viewers internalise norms, role definitions and other understandings of social organisation from what they see on TV screens and mainly thorugh the representation of stereotypes of recognisable portrayals of stable patterns of group life (ibid: 224).

A case study: Anderson et al.

In a widely cited study presented by Anderson et al (2001), the authors report on the follow-up of 570 adolescents, age 15 to 18, from Kansas and Massachusetts that had previously been studied as preschoolers in the early 1980s, to determine how the usage of television in an early age had affected their social and behavioral development. In their research Anderson et al assessed adolescent media use: grades in English, science, and mathematics; leisure reading; creativity; aggression; participation in extracurricular activities; use of alcohol and cigarettes; and self-image, ‘dependent variables’ that are commonly believed to be influenced by television  (ibid:121). The authors tested theories that emphasized the casual role of television content - in the line of the cultivation theorists - in opposition to those theories ‘positing effects of television as a medium, irrespective of content’ (ibid), more concern with the format of the television programmes watched. The results of this research fall on the side of the content-based hypotheses rather than supporting the theories that emphasise television as a medium.

Furthermore, the study ‘provides strong support for the potential of television to teach children’ (ibid:134) following the approach of television literacy and supporting the theory of television as a socialization agency - although the research does not follow the debate of whether it has positive or negative socialization effects. Finally, in opposition to the criticisms that consider television as yet another alienating medium in our societies, the study concludes with a final thought; ‘the medium is not the message. The message is the message!’ (ibid).

In conclusion, it can be said that television is a major agency of socialization in Western societies. Two of the main reasons that support this statement are the sociological effects of television as part of the mass media and the different theoretical approaches designed by researchers to investigate the specific means of television viewing and individual development. Although television is primarily considered a medium that reflects the world and which shows viewers what their societies are like, the response to these representations varies from individual to individual and can be assessed in the form of social behavior comparison along with the study of the viewing patterns of the individual. Some of the approaches that can be taken to assess the connection between television viewing and socialization are Cultivation theory and social organization theory. The first one comes from the assumption that television has long term effects in the attitude of the viewer. The second theory is based on the observation of human behavior to understand the intrinsic yet invisible patter within a social group. This theory can be applied to television given the representational value of the medium: viewers will identify in television social discourse to apply to themselves and to the rest of their social group. However, both theories are conditioned by the cognitive nature of human beings; although it is plausible to analyse the effects of television viewing in a group of individuals, the different external variables around each one of them will affect the assimilation of information and therefore the effects that such information will have in the mind of the viewer.