Broad and Narrow Socialization: The Family in the Context of a Cultural Theory

By Arnett, Jeffrey Jensen | Journal of Marriage and Family, August 1995 | Go to article overview

Broad and Narrow Socialization: The Family in the Context of a Cultural Theory


Arnett, Jeffrey Jensen, Journal of Marriage and Family


The theory of broad and narrow socialization is described, with a particular emphasis on placing family socialization in its cultural context. In cultures characterized by broad socialization, socialization is intended to promote independence, individualism, and self-expression. In contrast, cultures with narrow socialization hold obedience and conformity as their highest values. Seven sources of socialization are described, including family, peers, school/work, community, the media, the legal system, and the cultural belief system. Other considerations are discussed, including variation within cultures (such as gender differences) and the place of attachments. In addition, two examples of applications of the theory are provided.

Socialization has received a great deal of attention from social scientists in this century in research and theory on topics such as parenting, peer relations, and education. However, almost all of the research and theorizing in this area has taken modern Western society as its premise and its focus. As a consequence, there has been little theoretical attention to socialization as a cultural process, on the level of the culture as a whole. The present article is intended as a contribution in this direction, to promote a consideration of the cultural context of socialization and to elucidate comparisons and contrasts between cultures in their ways of socialization.

In the theory of broad and narrow socialization that I present here, the focus is on differences between cultures in their socialization practices. I also recognize, of course, that socialization practices vary within cultures, but my intent is to draw attention to cultural aspects often overlooked in theories of socialization. The seven sources of socialization specified in the theory of broad and narrow socialization include family, peers, schoolwork, community, the media, the legal system, and the cultural belief system. This theory is an attempt to integrate perspectives from psychology, sociology, and anthropology.

BROAD AND NARROW SOCIALIZATION

I make a distinction between two general types of cultural socialization, broad and narrow. Cultures characterized by broad socialization encourage individualism, independence, and self-expression, not just through socialization in the family but through other socialization sources as well. In contrast, cultures characterized by narrow socialization hold obedience and conformity as the highest values and discourage deviation from cultural expectations--again, not just through family socialization but through other sources of socialization as well. Broad socialization is broad in the sense that a relatively broad range of individual differences in paths of development can be predicted from socialization practices that emphasize individualism and independence. Narrow socialization is narrow in the sense that a restricted range of variation can be predicted when individuals are pressed toward conformity to a certain cultural standard.

This basic contrast in socialization, between an emphasis on individualism and self-expression on the one hand and conformity and obedience on the other, has been a staple of theory and research on parenting in the United States in this century, using a variety of terminology (see Alwin, Xu, & Carson, 1994). Three characteristics that distinguish the present approach are (a) the application of this distinction to socialization outside the family as well, including each of the seven sources described above, (b) the application of this distinction on the level of culture, to general patterns of socialization that can be said to be characteristic of a culture as a whole, and (c) the focus on variance as a way of evaluating empirically the predictive validity of the theory.

The focus of this theory is on the range of individual differences that cultures allow or encourage--relatively broad in the case of broad socialization, relatively narrow in the case of narrow socialization. …

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