Social Isolation & Human Development
Socialization is the process through which humans learn the values, behavioral norms, knowledge and skills of their societies. This process teaches humans to be humans in a culturally specific way while reproducing a society's culture. Socialization is necessary for human development because humans are not guided by instincts in the same way that other animals are. For example, instinct might tell a human that he or she is hungry and needs to get out of the cold, but no instinct tells humans exactly what to eat or how to catch and prepare it, and no instinct tells humans how to build shelter. Sociologists believe that socialization cannot occur in isolation; humans need to be socialized by other people to become fully functioning members of their societies. Studies of isolated and institutionalized children suggest that growing up without the cognitive and emotional stimulation provided by other humans can severely stunt a child's development. Sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists and biologists have competing theories explaining why isolation during development is so detrimental to normal functioning. Social psychologists, especially symbolic interactionists, believe that the self is acquired through interaction. Freudian psychologists believe that for the self to develop fully, it must internalize culture by forming a superego that will control the innate biological urges embodied by the id. In contrast, some developmental psychologists and sociobiologists believe that socialization and development of the self are innate stages, perhaps hardwired into our biology.
Keywords Ego; Human Development; I and "Me"; Id; Innate Behavior; Looking-Glass Self; Nature versus Nurture Debate; Social Isolation; Sociobiology; Superego
Socialization: Social Isolation
Socialization is the process through which people learn to be competent in their societies; it therefore teaches people their own society's definition of human behavior while also transmitting the society's idea of culture. Without socialization, there could be no societies. Sociologists believe that socialization is impossible without human contact. Studies of children who have been raised in isolation or confined to institutions suggest that contact with other people, especially contact that provides cognitive, physical and emotional stimulation, are crucial for human development. Studies of animals raised in isolation support these claims. While there is generally agreement that isolation stunts development, the manner in which contact with others influences development is debated by sociologists and other scientists.
What is Socialization?
Socialization is the process through which humans learn the values, behavioral norms, knowledge, and skills of their societies. Socialization serves two important functions for a society; it teaches new members of the society how to act according to social expectations, and it also transmits the society's culture to a new generation. The socialization process is interactive and lifelong — humans never finish the process of mastering new areas of cultural competence and learning new roles. As humans mature, their agents of socialization change. Initially socialization takes place within the family, and later it is continued by schools, religions, peers, the media and the workplace.
Humans are less governed by instinct and more governed by culture than other animals. As Geertz (1973) says,
Culture… is not just an ornament of human existence but… an essential condition for it…. What this means is that culture, rather than being added on, so to speak, to a finished or virtually finished animal, was ingredient, and centrally ingredient, in the production of that animal itself…. We are, in sum, incomplete or unfinished animals who complete or finish ourselves through culture (pp 46, 47, 49).
Biological stimuli might tell humans that they need to eat, that they need shelter, or that they are of an age to reproduce, but the knowledge and skills that allow them to accomplish these needs are culturally dictated. Because in many areas of life, humans rely on culture where other animals rely on instincts, socialization is vital to human development and survival. Up for debate, though, is the question of what humans might be without culture. This is referred to as the "nature versus nature" debate, and it considers which human characteristics are innate (inherited, biological, genetic) and which are influenced by interaction with the environment and other humans.
What would a human be like if raised in isolation? This question has intrigued sociologists, biologists, anthropologists and psychologists, yet it of course remains unanswerable since there is no ethical way to conduct isolation experiments on human infants. There is evidence to suggest that humans raised in isolation would lack many of the features that we generally think of as "human." This evidence comes from studies of children who have been raised in extreme isolation, studies of institutionalized children, and studies of isolated animals.
While cases of socially isolated children are rare, a few exist that show the deleterious effects of lack of human contact. One of the earliest documented cases is the "Wild Boy of Aveyron," a boy called Victor found in 1798 when he was seven years old. He was supposedly raised by animals in a rural area of France, and was captured in January of 1800. Modern speculation suggests that he was probably an abandoned child, and might be the first documented case of autism. He died at the age of 40 at an annex of the Paris Institution des Sourds-Muets (Appelbaum & Chambliss, 1997).
One of the most recent cases of isolation to achieve widespread publicity is the case of Genie. Genie was discovered on November 4, 1970. She had been locked in a room by herself, tied to a toilet seat and physically abused by her father for about ten years. When she was discovered, she understood very few words. After she was removed from her home, her mental and physical capacities improved but she never developed a grasp of grammar and sentences and never understood norms of interaction (basic rules about touching, space, and private versus public behavior). Her care after rescue was uneven; she was studied intensively by researchers, but was returned to state care — including placement in an abusive foster home — once funding for her study ran out (Henslin, 2002; Hughes, Kroehler, & Vander Zanden, 2002).
Two of the more famous cases of isolated children — two girls known as Anna and Isabelle — were used by Kingsley Davis (1949, 1993) to illustrate issues involving social isolation. The lives of the girls provide evidence for the need for human contact and also provide a little hope that in some situations children may be able to recover from neglect. Both girls were born to unwed mothers in the early 1930's; the stigma of illegitimacy contributed to each girl's isolation. Anna's mother lived with her own father, who disapproved violently of his illegitimate granddaughter, causing Anna to be moved from unhealthy foster home to unhealthy foster home as an infant. Returned to her mother's home around the age of six months old, she was kept in a bed in an attic and fed only milk. Apparently her mother ignored her and rarely moved or cleaned her. When she was discovered around the age of six years old, she could not walk or talk. After two years spent in various institutions she learned to walk and could comprehend simple words, although she did not speak herself for another two years and her speech never progressed beyond the level of a two-year-old. It is not clear how far her progress would have continued since she died from jaundice when she was ten.
Isabelle's case was remarkably similar, insofar as she was illegitimate and locked in a room for her first six years. However, she had company — her mother who was deaf and mute stayed in the room with...
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