Oversocialization: An Introduction

How Socialization Goes Awry and The Jekyll/Hyde Case of Credentials

This is the introductory post of my Oversocialization Series, which will take place over the next 2-3 weeks. I plan a total of 6-8 posts. This post will be updated with links to all future posts at the end of this piece.


What is Socialization?

Put simply, socialization is a process by which individuals become accustomed to, and internalize, the norms, values, and ideologies of the society they live in. Socialization is not an inherently evil process: we must all learn how to co-exist with others around us. What is, or is not, polite, what is considered (dis)respectful, etc. are all fairly banal questions, but critical to understand if one wishes to be accepted in society. More serious issues such as politics, philosophy, etc. are also subject to socialization, and we tend to operate with a philosophical background that we are unaware of without rigorous interrogation.

Who/What are the Agents of Socialization?

There are individuals, institutions, and groups that we interface with, and through which we learn the rules of society. Different accounts of socialization will argue there are different sets of agents of socialization, but almost all accounts have at least a “core 5”: Family, Peers, School, Mass Media, and Religion.

Ignoring (for now) the declining impact of religion on society (for better or worse), we are exposed to these people and institutions for a large amount of time on a consistent basis. All of these institutions, besides the mass media, incorporate disciplinary spaces (family and school punishments, religious damnation, and peer social exclusion). A corollary to this is that we wish to be accepted by our family, our peers, etc. If we look at this, two conditions can be pulled out:

  1. Time = We are exposed to these people for a large amount of time on a consistent basis

  2. Status = We wish to be accepted/affirmed and we wish to avoid discipline. We wish to be “high status”.

These dynamics play out in other areas as well (most notably in workplaces), and so understanding this process is critical.

When we encounter a new group/network that we have a reasonable expectation of seeing in the future and that we care about, we will attempt to internalize the norms and values of the network in order to achieve high-status (be accepted and/or avoid discipline).

Note that last point: “and that we care about”. Socialization only works if we trust and respect the network/institution we are engaging with. If we think school is stupid, or the media is full of lies, or religion is just a magic sky man story, or that our family sucks, we are less likely to internalize their norms: HOWEVER, they will (likely) still be elements of our socialization.

How does that occur?


Socialization and Moral Space

As I have discussed a couple times before, we orient ourselves in a kind of ‘moral space’ using ‘Goods’. Charles Taylor is the best articulator of this. From a previous post of mine:

“To know who I am is to know where I stand. My identity is defined by the commitments and identifications which provide the frame or horizon within which I can try to determine from case to case what is good, or valuable, or what ought to be done, or what I endorse or oppose.”

As Taylor goes on to note, without this horizon/frame, we lose our identity. This is an identity crisis. A “radical uncertainty of where [I] stand” implies an uncertainty of who I am.

Our values, the Goods (like honesty, fairness, equality, freedom, etc.) that we consider are valuable/good/worth pursuing, sit at the core of our very being, of how we identify ourselves and of how we engage with the outside world. They are connected in a whole web of evaluations which define me as a person.

This is critical: socialization is a major (perhaps the major) factor in developing your horizon/frame. Socialization hands you a packet of ‘Goods’ that the society recognizes and expects you to internalize as your own ‘Goods’. Failure to do so can lead to exclusion, punishment, etc.

But moral space possess two dynamics: we are attracted by ‘Goods’ and we are repelled by ‘Evils’. In other words, we are told by agents of socialization that certain actions (or values, beliefs, ideologies, etc.) are repellent. They confer low status (“look at that nerd!”) or lead to punishment (“that’s a crime!”), etc.

Here we see a distinct edge case with our earlier point on socialization and Status: what happens when we reject an institution and its teachings? Sometimes the institution simply stops mattering at all to the rejector. But other times, the institution’s ‘Goods’ tend to become ‘Evils’. But this is still a kind of socialization process. (Note: I have discussed before how values and ideologies can change)


So what is “oversocialization” then? There are two takes on this:

  1. The “OG” Ted Kacynski

  2. Mine

First, the OG:

25. The moral code of our society is so demanding that no one can think, feel and act in a completely moral way. For example, we are not supposed to hate anyone, yet almost everyone hates somebody at some time or other, whether he admits it to himself or not. Some people are so highly socialized that the attempt to think, feel and act morally imposes a severe burden on them. In order to avoid feelings of guilt, they continually have to deceive themselves about their own motives and find moral explanations for feelings and actions that in reality have a non-moral origin. We use the term “oversocialized” to describe such people.

26. …One of the most important means by which our society socializes children is by making them feel ashamed of behavior or speech that is contrary to society’s expectations… Moreover the thought and the behavior of the oversocialized person are more restricted by society’s expectations than are those of the lightly socialized person… The oversocialized person cannot even experience, without guilt, thoughts or feelings that are contrary to the accepted morality; he cannot think “unclean” thoughts. And socialization is not just a matter of morality; we are socialized to conform to many norms of behavior that do not fall under the heading of morality. Thus the oversocialized person is kept on a psychological leash and spends his life running on rails that society has laid down for him…

Kacynski lays it out clearly. Oversocialized people have internalized the norms of society to such an extent that they are incapable of rebelling against those norms (or even considering rebellion) without feeling deeply guilty.

I feel this is a good start but presents two issues:

  1. The distinction between ‘oversocialized’ and ‘socialized’ is fuzzy. What are the mechanisms by which someone goes from socialized to oversocialized? Why does this happen?

  2. Guilt is not the only marker of the oversocialized (in my opinion)

Let us address these.

First, I will argue that the distinction between ‘oversocialized’ and ‘socialized’ comes down to the goods we adopt in moral space. In other words, someone becomes socialized when they internalize the goods of society into their moral space. BUT someone becomes OVERsocialized, when they either elevate those internalized goods to a status of “higher Good(s)” or they have no other goods at all.

What does a “higher/highest Good(s)” mean? According to Taylor, we judge all our other values, all the other ‘goods’ that guide our lives, by the standard of this highest good, or “hypergood”. I had this to say:

Second, not all goods are equal. A person almost always values many goods, and it is possible for that person to rank their higher goods. I will not go so far as to argue that individuals must have a single highest good, but we all encounter moral dilemmas: situations where we must pick between which goods to fulfill, as no option fulfills all of them. These dilemmas are critical to our development as people.

So an oversocialized person, when presented with a dilemma between the internalized ‘good’ of society vs. a ‘good’ they may have developed elsewhere, will always pick the internalized ‘good’.

And I can already hear the counter: “But Apex, EVERY value we get comes from the socialization process!” On the one hand, no. On the other hand, there is a reasonable intuition here. So how do we distinguish between the ‘oversocialized’ and the just-normally-socialized if we assume at least most of our values come from some element of socialization?

We will add a second caveat: the oversocialized person is a person who internalizes the goods (and always selects them in a moral dilemma) of a SINGLE Institution or network (or a single ideologically-contiguous nexus of institutions and networks) within society. If you have no conflict between moral ‘goods’ from different sources (your own experience, competing institutions, etc.) and you instead internalize one particular institution’s set of goods in their entirety, you are oversocialized. The ‘oversocialized’ person will rarely entertain data or theories that oppose these ‘goods’ and will tend to rationalize opposing information away (or emotionally lash out if the rationalization fails).

This is especially problematic when we look at oversocialization with regards to the dominant institutions in society. Now that dominance can shift within different places and different times of course, but whatever the dominant institutions/networks are where and when you are, internalizing those norms and values and elevating them above all others makes you not only ‘oversocialized’ but also an unwitting foot-soldier of the elites who are in power.

Why do some people become oversocialized and others do not? Here, I have no ready answers. Perhaps developmental psychology or network theory will give us some answers, but I do not have them at the moment. This, of course, is a question worth delving into.

Second, guilt is not the only emotion that is a clear driver of the ‘oversocialized’ (although by god is it a major one). I discussed earlier that ‘derangement’ is a key element of the ‘oversocialized’:

Oversocialization in this context can best be understood as unthinkingly accepting the framing of an issue by a perceived authority, and using that framing as a good. This can obviously lead to derangement syndromes (see: tv-addicted Boomers on each side - CNN vs FOX - with their own derangements).

Hostility, fear, smugness, superiority, etc. All of these emotions can be results of oversocialization. While guilt is a prominent one, it would be foolish to limit ourselves to just that and try to psychoanalyze people to fit them into a framework of “deep down, they must be feeling guilty!” There are other emotions. We must begin not from guilt, but from peoples moral spaces, from what guides them in life, if we are to understand the ‘oversocialized’ man, and attempt to get through to him.


Why Credentials Matter

Part of the socialization process is trust. If I value an institution, I trust the institution, but I may not necessarily trust everyone in the institution. I have to distinguish between those who know what they’re talking about and those who do not.

Credentials are ultimately a signaling device. They signal that some institution has declared that this person has attained some level of expertise/knowledge/status according to the rules of that institution.

Credentials are not necessarily evil, and they can be very useful. For instance, imagine I have a leaky pipe. I could call up my friend who has been playing around with some tools and who I generally trust, OR I could go and find a licensed plumber. If I trust that the license means something real (like it is only conferred after passing a rigorous examination), then I have good reason to trust the credentials. As much as I like my friend, I’ll probably call up the licensed guy.

But this only works so long as people trust the credentials. And because credentials don’t just magically appear out of thin air, credentials only matter so far as people trust the credential-conferring institutions. Maybe I know the local plumbing organization is corrupt and gives out licenses to anyone who pays enough money. In which case, a license may actually be worse than nothing: this person may ruin my pipes even more! So, I would need to look elsewhere. Maybe it is time to give my friend a call…

Corrupting Credentials

So what could corrupt a credential-conferring institution? Or perhaps, what would lead a corrupt credential-conferring institution to enter into a particular industry and compete against legitimate credential-conferring institutions?

Fundamentally: incentive structures.

Some credential X offers the ability for a person to make more money/get higher status/etc because the institutions that confer credential X are trusted.

If a corrupt institution believes it can offer a facsimile of credential X for lower cost and make a profit from it, then there is an incentive to do so. Similarly, if a currently legitimate institution believes it can lower costs by reducing the rigor of its examinations (thereby reducing the value behind the credential), there is an incentive to do so.

Other exogenous forces can impact credentials as well. What happens when everyone has a college degree? Well they become worthless (either the college degree rigor is so diluted that anyone can get one, or everyone is so smart that they can pass the rigor and nobody needs one to signal their relative intelligence).

The War of “Expertise”

What happens when no one trusts institutions anymore? Well, of course, the credentials become worthless. But the “nobody trusts institutions anymore” line is far too simplistic. People trust their institutions. They have their subset of institutions they trust and then they reject the rest.

And so you see, on the one hand, people appealing to experts and using “you don’t have a degree” as a defense against criticism, and on the other hand, you see people wholly rejecting the credentials conferred by institutions they perceive as morally or intellectually corrupt.

Tying this back to oversocialization, if I have internalized the norms and values of the dominant institutions in society, then I will be aligned with the credentials those dominant institutions confer. Hence, college degrees are explained in economic terms but frequently are felt in terms of status. What kid in a high-income area wants to be known as the one who not only didn’t get into an Ivy, but didn’t go to college at all?

And so the oversocialized will tend to be the most ardent defenders of the credentials of the institutions they trust. Of course they will: if they didn’t defend those credentials, how could we reasonably infer they genuinely trust those institutions?

In this war, every man has picked their side. “All that is solid melts into air” takes on a new meaning when we watch institutions that used to command the trust of all people become trustworthy only to a segment. The Truth dissolves into air, as we are left only with conflicting narratives. There is no longer a public order of references (whose meanings are widely accepted) to orient ourselves and our discourse around.

But just the same as before, whoever owns the institutions owns the world.

Well, I hope that was interesting. I tried to keep it down to the basics, but it still ended up being longer than I had wanted. Alas, we cannot win all of our battles.

Over the course of the next 2-3 weeks, I will be covering a series of issues. My next two pieces will be better fleshing out the moral background of our society as well as the dynamics of the dominant agents of socialization today (Blue Empire). Then I will discuss particular examples of oversocialization, notably where the language-violence confused nonsense and the ideological derangements of the Left and the Right.

I hope you enjoy.

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I hope 2021 has gotten off to a good start for you all. Be well, my friends.


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List of Pieces in Oversocialization Series so Far:

Part 1: You’re reading it

Part 2: Testing the pH of the Fish Tank - A Sketch of our Modern Moral Consciousness

Part 3: Storming the Bastille? Or a Fascist Coup? - On Oversocialization and “Truth”

Part 4: Blue Empire: The Masters of Socialization

Part 5: Keeping Us in Line - Internal Mechanisms of Oversocialization