May 28, 2024

By Siddharth Aiyar

The author is a first-year student at National Law University Odisha


In this modern-day and age, an individual’s choice is considered to be sacrosanct, given the popularity of the modern liberal discourse. So, is an individual choice what society functions on? Or is an individual choice by itself influenced by society? We will answer these questions by understanding three major concepts: socialization, social order, and social control and seeing how they work in society. Before delving into these concepts, we must also understand the concept of ‘deviance’. ‘Deviance’, or ‘social deviance’ is, to put it very simply, a way of behavior that is considered ‘abnormal’, or deviant. This means that the behavior in question goes against what society considers to be ‘normal’ behavior. We’ll get to the concept of ‘normal’ behavior after understanding the concept of socialization a little more. It must be kept in mind that this piece relies primarily on Emile Durkheim’s functionalist theory.

Socialization, just like several other sociological terms, is one with several definitions, varying from sociologist to sociologist. Aggregating and comparing all meanings, we can make out that socialization refers to a lifelong process of internalizing social norms, ideologies, and values. This specific term is deeply intertwined with psychology because it deals primarily with how society shapes an individual which is also influenced by how the individual views society at large. In cases where the individual view subscribes with the socially accepted view, the end result of socialization is said to be ‘moral’. In cases where the individual’s view is deviant from the socially accepted view, the end result of socialization is said to be ‘immoral’.

The theory of socialization insists that individuals are not blank slates, predetermined by the environment, but are a result of both the environment as well their genes, or ‘nurture and nature, in that order. The evidence for hereditary influences on intelligence comes mainly from studies on twins and adopted children. The intelligence of identical twins reared together correlates almost 0.90. Twins separated early in childhood also show considerable similarity in their intellectual, personality, and behavioral characteristics. The intelligence of identical twins reared in different environments correlates 0.72, those of fraternal twins reared together correlate almost 0.60, and those of brothers and sisters reared together correlate about 0.50, while siblings reared apart correlate about 0.25. Another line of evidence comes from the studies of adopted children, which show that children’s intelligence is more similar to their biological rather than adoptive parents. With respect to the role of environment, studies have reported that as children grow in age, their intelligence level tends to move closer to that of their adoptive parents. Children from disadvantaged homes adopted into families with higher socioeconomic status exhibit a large increase in their intelligence scores. There is evidence that environmental deprivation lowers intelligence while rich nutrition, good family background, and quality schooling increase intelligence. There is a general consensus among psychologists that intelligence is a product of complex interaction of heredity (nature) and environment (nurture). Heredity can best be viewed as something that sets a range within which an individual’s development is actually shaped by the support and opportunities of the environment.

The importance of the psychological impact that nature and nurture have on a child can hardly be understated from a sociological point of view. While it is true that sociology and psychology tend to differ in their focus of study, here, it is important as the family is said to be the very first agent of socialization of an individual. So, the imprinting of social norms in a person’s psyche tends to start with the family. The social behavior of the family is influenced by its social position and labels as well. For instance, while an upper-class family would tend to be more liberal as a result of the access to better education, a poor, lower-class family would tend to be more conservative and reliant on customs and norms as a yardstick for ideal behavior as a result of lack of such education. So, psychologically, an individual’s behavior tends to align with whatever norms and values that have been taught to them by their family, sociologically, the family in itself is influenced by its position in the existing social hierarchy.     

Thus, socialization can be described as a kind of programming that individuals go through as they navigate social life. This programming may range from being subtle, like the usage of body language to convey disapproval of certain behavior, to be explicit, like explanations of social norms within a family.

This brings up the next notable issue. What is the guarantee that individuals will be socialized similarly across society? It must be kept in mind that individuals are socialized based on their social groups. This refers to social labels that are associated with the individual’s identity. Markers like religion, caste, and class are some of the well-known labels. There are regional variations in the socially expected behavior of these groups as well. For instance, in South India, the Brahmin caste is expected to abstain from meat, but in Bengal, Uttarakhand, and Himachal Pradesh, no such restriction is imposed.

This discussion neatly brings us to the concept of social control and social order, both of which are closely intertwined concepts. Social order refers to the maintenance of the status quo which is a result of the smooth functioning of social institutions. This maintenance of the status quo is generally seen as ideal as long as there exists no constant debilitating form of conflict in said status quo. It makes it easier in this scenario, to view social institutions as building blocks of society, and that the structural soundness of each individual block, as well as how well it sticks with, or ‘interacts’ with other blocks, are both important factors in determining how well the finished structure – i.e., society – will stand, or, in other words, how stable society will be.

Social institutions are constituted by individuals, and by extension, it can be deduced that the smooth functioning of a social institution relies on proportionally cohesive behavior among the individuals that constitute such social institutions. If the plastic of the block is not in proper shape, the block will not be in proper shape and therefore the building will not stand! In order to ensure that such cohesiveness exists within social institutions, we have social controls. Situations, where such cohesiveness gets damaged, are usually a result of social deviance. In order to prevent such deviances, social control exists. To put it into perspective, the social procedures, techniques, and strategies used to manage an individual’s or a group’s behavior are referred to as social control.

Social control can be divided into two categories:

  •  The formal, official, and codified social control system. The state and the law are its agents.
  • Informal social control, which is unauthorised, uncodified, and intimate. For instance, consider family, religion, and kinship. In our daily lives, this technique of social control is quite powerful. This type of social control, however, may not be sufficient to ensure conformity or obedience.

As in the case of punishments, social control can be both positive and negative. Positive social control refers generally to rewards given to individuals for performing activities that are socially acceptable or encouraged by society. Negative social control refers to punishments meted out for violation of what is considered to be socially acceptable.
For instance, in a hypothetical society where heterosexual marriages are the only ones that are encouraged, and homosexual marriages are actively discouraged, a person who prevents the marriage from happening may be exalted as the ‘savior of their culture’, and will be rewarded either materialistically (giving gifts, money, political power) or just socially, through recognition and approval. The people attempting to marry, on the other hand, would be treated as ‘black marks’, and will be subjected to harsh punitive measures, like social exclusion, lynching, or imprisonment. These measures may be either formal means of social control or informal means, but they are all socially recognized and, to a certain extent, accepted.

Now that we have a rudimentary understanding of social control, let us look at how social control and socialization form a never-ending self-reinforcing loop, where socialization leads to social controls being enforced, and the enforcement of social control effectively leading to socialization. We must remember that this need not work similarly across all societies, but are likely to follow a common base method of how it works.

Let us, once again, look at society in the aforementioned example. We will be looking at exactly one aspect of the society, i.e., the society’s rejection of the legitimacy of homosexuality, for the sake of simplicity. In such a society, the practice of homosexuality is frowned upon by a majority of the people in it. In families, children are taught that homosexuality is wrong from a very young age, effectively making the rejection of homosexuality, to a certain degree, widely accepted and followed.

Now, if the opposition towards homosexuality is strong enough, a government/administrative institution is likely to support such opposition on two grounds: one, in a democracy, as are most societies today, the will of the people is the main yardstick for policymaking, and since the opposition towards homosexuality is supported by a large number of people, it can be recognized as the will of the people. Second, political institutions require the support of individuals and are likelier to receive such support by campaigning with the majority, rather than against it. Therefore, it is also likely that laws opposing homosexuality are likely to be passed. Once laws such as these are passed, the socialization process intensifies as there is now a legal, authoritative backing for the socially accepted norms.

Let us apply what we have understood so far to this. First of all, being homosexual or the practice of homosexuality is considered to be ‘abnormal’ or deviance from the cisgender-heterosexual social order. Any deviance would initially be punished through informal means of social control, such as social exclusion. However, as the opposition gains momentum and laws are passed, there exist legal mechanisms to punish this deviance. This unseen, unwritten social order has now become a codified, legally sanctioned law. The methods of social control become more and more formal, and it becomes harder to deviate from the social norm, and people are socialized to reject homosexuality more because it is now legally unacceptable as well.

This particular example is loosely based on the Buggery Act, or, formally, An Acte for the punishment of the vice of Buggerie, passed in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in 1533 under the rule of Henry VII. Another famous example is Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. Both of these dealt with ‘unnatural sexual activity. The term ‘unnatural’ was defined by the social norms existing at the time.

That being established, it is now important that we understand the implications of this vis-à-vis the questions that need to be answered. We have, by understanding how socialization, social order, and social control are interlinked, also inadvertently proved that an individual is shaped by society to a very large degree. We have seen that as socialization occurs, the process of formalization of social control can follow, leading to the legitimization of social norms, meaning that the individual is legally bound to follow such norms. This effectively means that an individual is influenced by society in both an informal way, such as the enforcement of social norms by the family, as well as formal ways, such as the need to follow the law.

When talking about the existence of a social structure and addressing the possibility of it being a mere figment of our imagination, we must understand that the collective belief and support from authority for any social institution is what gives this institution legitimacy. The caste system, for instance, is not a tangible, physical entity, but a part of our collective imagination. The case hierarchy derives its legitimacy from the fact that most individuals in Indian society recognize its existence. Of course, this does not mean that most individuals agree with the discrimination and exclusionary practices of the case system. This merely means that individuals acknowledge that such a system exists. Furthermore, various legislations, dating from the British colonial era, address various issues pertaining to this system, giving this system recognition from authority.

The existence of a social structure has been recognized globally. Repeated references to ‘cultural identity, ‘social order’, etc., have confirmed the fact that there is some form of social structure and some form that society has in various regions across the world. The restrictiveness of this structure varies from society to society depending on the strength of the conservative institutions as well as the powers of the groups of authority. The emphasis on conservative institutions is because conservative institutions are the institutions that primarily focus on maintaining the status quo, especially a status quo that relies on some form of socio-cultural and political identity.

In present-day Afghanistan, for instance, following the takeover by the Taliban, conservative Islamic institutions have been in power. Education of women has been restricted, as has the power of the media and freedoms available to the people. Here, the social structure is very rigid and has been established through the subjective interpretation of the Holy Quran by Islamic scholars. On the other hand, in New Zealand, the social structure is based almost exclusively on secular laws that do not rely on any form of socio-political identity. The freedoms available to the people are far more extensive and the social structure is definitely very flexible, allowing for modification to laws to ensure the welfare and choice of the people is respected, independent of their social standing.

In conclusion, an individual is indeed very heavily influenced by society. When Aristotle referred to the man as a ‘social animal’ he was referring to the theory that society precedes the individual, and therefore, social values and ideologies are already waiting to enter the mind of the individual even before the individual is born, and it can hardly be disputed that this makes sense in today’s world. Independent of whether society is a figment of one’s imagination or not, a person is influenced by it, and is, independent of how much they try to reject it, still a part of society. The social structure is not something one can just ‘exit’. As long as the person is human, they do have social labels and some form of social identity, all of which are markers of them being within the social structure in the end.   

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