TODAY -

Socialization and the Two "Meads"

Dr T Deepamanjuri Devi *



Social Anthropology/Sociology has another interesting and yet 'unresolved' issue of the nature vs. nurture debate. This is especially the case when we think of the process of socialization. Generally defined as '...a process by which individuals acquire the knowledge, language, social skills and value to conform to the norms and roles required integration into a group or community', socialization is an important process through which social values are transmitted from generation to generation making continuation of social existence possible for any group or community.

The first 'Mead'- George Herbert Mead (1863-1931) was one of the pioneering thinkers who did extensive studies on how the human person 'emerges' out of the interactions he/she indulges with significant others within a socio-cultural environment which was already there before him/her. The learning process takes place throughout lifetime, but most importantly during childhood and adolescence, passing through different phases of socialization.

In Mind, Self and Society (published posthumously in 1934 by his students), GH Mead explained how the 'self' and 'mind' emerged from our interactions with others in the 'society'. One of the founding fathers of Chicago school of Pragmatism, Sociologist, Physiological Psychologist, and Philosopher Herbert Mead claims that individuals are active participants in the process of socialization and the emergence of a sense of self-identity depends on our 'symbolic interactions', or linguistic communications with others in the society.

The physiological existence is important, but not enough condition for the self to emerge. Mind is not a static substance located in some transcendent realm nor is it merely a series of events that takes place within the human physiological structure. Mead rejected the traditional view of mind as a substance separate from the body and he was also not with the Behaviorists who tried to account for mind in terms of neurology or physiology.

The importance of the physiological conditions of mind cannot be denied. However, the physical or organic existence is not sufficient for mind to emerge. The symbolic communication is a must for the mind to internalize and externalize meaningful symbols through communications and interactions with others within a socio-temporal context. The internalization of the generalized others by individuals makes socialization complete and successful.

While the organic existence of the individual had been given importance by GH Mead, he assumed apriori existence of the 'generalized others' or the social and its constituting individuals who continuously engage in symbolic interactions and communications with one another. Both nature and nurture are important and essential for an individual, but when it comes to which one is more important, Mead gave emphasis on the nurture/social/cultural over the nature/organism.

The other "Mead"- American Cultural Anthropologist Margaret Mead (1901-1978) was another Social Scientist who greatly influenced how we perceived socialization. A great inspiration for the Feminist studies and an outspoken Anthropologist, Mead, however, never self -identified herself as a Feminist (reminds me of Marx and Sociology!).

Margaret was one of the pioneers in the field of scientific study of socialization as a socio-psychological process. The question and the debate of 'nature vs nurture' also captured her attention just like her contemporary thinkers in the West. In such an important event of social transmission of values and practices like socialization, which one plays the important role, or rather, which one is more important and which exercises more influence on humans-nature or nurture?

Margaret Mead published her ethnography, "Coming of Age in Samoa" in 1928. The world got the first scientific study of socialization as a process of acquiring cultural skills and knowledge where the relative importance of biological and socially acquired determinants of human behaviour was extensively analyzed on the basis of her field work in the American Samoa territory of the South Pacific region for nine months in 1925.

Mead was troubled by the way adolescence has been perceived in the Western societies. In the West, and especially in the United States, the stage of adolescence has been viewed as a traumatic and stressful phase of growing up mainly due to the biological factors. Mead's findings changed how the world looked at socialization and the roles of biology and culture in this process of socialization. Human personalities are shaped through socialization.

But is it biology that determines the nature of the process, especially during growing up periods? No, it's not biology rather it is culture that plays the determining role during socialization process. Growing up in the Samoan society was not so stressful as in the United States because in Samoan society, the cultural patterns and expectations gave the adolescents a kind protective shield from psychological stress.

Compared to the Western individuals, Samoans were described as '…simpler, more honest, and less driven by sexual neuroses than the West….' The various social protection practices available in the Samoan culture made growing up in the group a pleasant experience and not a stressful one as is the case in the West.

While Mead's findings were extremely popular among the Anthropologists, she was also criticized for 'romanticizing' Samoan culture, and also for the methods she had adopted in her fieldwork in Samoa. Was she just trying to prove her Professor Franz Boas' theory of cultural determinism right through her Samoan findings? Did her informants 'lie' to her as Derek Freeman had claimed ? The controversies went on.

The 'fact' is most of the intellectuals in the West were not so comfortable when Margaret Mead claimed that the non-Western societies could offer 'better alternatives' in the process of learning to become 'humans' than their Western counterparts. That was a myopic view of societies present in different parts of the world.

The Westerners probably were used to seeing other societies through the prism of their own society. They probably were in favour of a singular world, not necessary a world made up with contents from other societies but only from the Western society. Such approach probably opened the floodgate of discontents from other societies against the West. Is it not a case of westernization being sold across the globe in the guise of globalization?

However, it is not Coming of Age… which is my favorite - rather it is the other ethnography of Margaret Mead which remains one of my all-time favorites, Sex and Temperament in three Primitive societies. A wonderfully delightful, fascinating, and brilliant ethnographic study, this book, published in 1935, changed popular perceptions of socialization, motherhood, and gender roles in the society.

The three 'primitive tribes' were the New Guinean communities, viz. the Arapesh, the Mundugumor, and the Tchambuli. Through her works in these three societies, Mead concluded that masculinity or femininity is not something which is based on biological differences, rather these different personality types are products of cultural conditionings in different societies.

She found that among the 'gentle' mountain dwelling Arapesh, both males and females were socialized to be 'gentle, passive, dependent, cooperative, nurturant and maternal' and no differences in personality type was expected from males and females. The Mundugumor recognized only two genders - males and females and did not recognize 'homosexuality'. Both males and females were 'violent, aggressive, and power and position seeking.'

Among the Tchambulis however, males and females have distinctive personality types. Males in the Tchambuli were 'less responsible, and emotionally dependent' than the females who were more 'dominant, managerial and impersonal'. Through her findings in these three societies, Mead concluded that the biological 'sex' can be separated from the socially constructed 'gender' and this was a ground breaking claim in the study of gender roles, socialization and the 'nature vs nurture' debate.

Margaret Mead became a key figure in the second wave of Feminist Anthropology in the 1960's.Her finding on the possibility of separating 'sex' from 'gender' as different categories was an inspiring moment for the Feminist Thinkers to work on the potential of social categories to change human social realities.

It may be discerned from the above discussion that both the Meads were in favour of the nurture having greater role than nature in the socialization process. It is not denying the fact that biology is indispensable. Biology of being born is the fundamental basis on which culture in a society is built.

The above mentioned so called 'primitive societies' may be compared with our Meitei society of the 19th or the maximum part of the 20th century when it was not exposed to the tantalizing forces of 'modernity'. But today it has been under the grip of both soft and hard powers from different 'developed' parts of the world affecting how we socialize amongst ourselves.

Socialization through 'social media' is the trend today here also. The big question is, are our adolescents and children not losing on the pleasure of playing among real friends on the real playgrounds? May be not.

This is the main nagging worry amongst the modern parents. Parents are caught in the dilemma of choosing which medium over others for their children. Or should we be contented with the new age socialization pattern, where the old is discarded for the new? Or are we going to just follow the old adage of 'Change is the only constant motor, it does not change at all'?


* Dr T Deepamanjuri Devi wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was webcasted on June 23 2024.



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