Black Family Life on Television and the Socialization of the African American Child: Images of Marginality

Article excerpt

Sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists and other students of human behavior have generally agreed on the importance of the social and developmental process they refer to as socialization. The socialization process is one by which children learn the rules and regulations of their own family group, their culture, and their society. Within this framework, socialization is a process of assisting the child in acquiring the attitudes, skills, and knowledge needed to get along in that society (Harris and Liebert, 1984; McConnell, 1980). Socialization also refers to the learning of information, cognitive processes, values, attitudes, social roles, self-concepts, and behaviors that are generally accepted - or expected - within one or many segments of American society (Berger and Luckmann, 1967; Dorr, 1982).

The major institutions most involved in the early learning process related to socialization have traditionally been the parents and family, the school, and religious organizations. In addition, the peer group plays a role in the process as the child matures. Of these institutions, the agent that has the most influence on the learning process of children remains the parents and family who surround them. Parents or the primary caregivers exert the most influence on the child because they serve as the models from whom children receive positive reinforcement for their behavior, as well as corrections of their actions when they fall outside of the values of the family unit and its broader cultural group.

Any analysis of the socialization process also involves a great deal of social learning which is sometimes called "modeling." Developing children frequently model both desirable and undesirable behaviors after that of others. This is especially true for those they trust and admire (Berger, 1980). The social learning theory surrounding the concepts of modeling is important because it assists us in understanding how this element of the socialization process provides children with a set of beliefs, values and attitudes about themselves, their family, ethnic group and others. These early values and beliefs learned from a variety of sources are frequently maintained by the child into adulthood.

Clearly, the agents of socialization such as the family and the other traditional institutions remain the major transmitters of values within the process of socialization. In contemporary society, however, the phenomenon of mass communication competes with these traditional socializing institutions. This is especially true of television, so this article examines the role of this medium in the socialization of African American children.


No medium within our vast communication system is more competitive with the traditional agents of socialization than television. The attractiveness of the television people, its images and messages, surrounded by a dynamic set of formal features which increases its power, means that it can create profound mental sets in children. The messages and images of television consciously and unconsciously compete with and challenge the teachings in the home and other institutions concerned with the growth and development of young people.

It is the ubiquitous nature of television in American society, and its ever-present entertainment and information, that causes it to be an important secondary socializer of the young. Television is a box that can talk, sing, record, play games, and change colors. Throughout each of these operations, television also provides for children an unending array of values and ideas about the world, people like themselves, and those who are different from them.

We know from social learning theory that any medium that can teach can also help to form attitudes and beliefs. Leifer, Gordon, and Graves (1974) suggest that children change their attitudes about people and activities to reflect those encountered in television programs. …