What Is Political Socialization? Definition and Examples

By Charlotte Nickerson, published November 01, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


Political socialisation is the process whereby individuals are initiated into the dominant values and traditions of a society, including those values which define the legitimate processes of politics and the way that power is exercised.

Political socialization occurs throughout an individual's life, but is most pronounced during childhood and adolescence. The family is generally considered to be the primary agent of political socialization, followed by educational institutions, the media, and peer groups.

As a phenomena, political socialization has been around for centuries, but it has been studied extensively and systematically since the early 20th century. Around the turn of the twentieth century educators in the United States conducted studies of school children that included choices of national figures most admired by the children (Greenstein, 1965).

Early research also focused on understanding how World War II and the Cold War influenced children's attitudes towards politics and government (Greenstein, 1965). In more recent years, scholars have taken a broader approach to political socialization, studying factors such as race, gender, and social class in addition to age, education, and family background.

Hyman (1959) conceptualized political socialization along three dimensions: participation or involvement in politics, radical or conservative goals, and democratic or authoritarian forms.   According to Hyman, these three dimensions are interrelated but independent of each other. That is, individuals can be high or low on any single dimension without being high or low on the others.

Key Takeaways

  • Political socialization is the process by which individuals develop their political beliefs.
  • The family, friends, school, media, and government are all main agents of political socialization.
  • Classically, sociologists have thought of political socialization as occurring largely during one's childhood, resulting in stable political views; however, this view has shifted in later sociological research accounting for the role of one's current environment and attitudes on political beliefs.
  • More recently, consensus theories have been Nonetheless, a large number of secondary agents - such as work and political parties - can serve as agents of secondary socialization. Their number typically depends on the political complexity of a society.

Agents of political Socialization

Family

The family is considered to be the primary agent of political socialization. From an early age, children learn about politics and government from their parents or guardians.

Parents often share their own political views with their children, which can have a significant impact on the development of those views. In addition, parents provide information about how to participate in the political process, such as voting or running for office.

For example, a parent who is active in their local community may take their child to city council meetings, help them register to vote when they turn 18, or take them to political protests and rallies aligned with their own political views (Jennings & Niemi, 2015).

While the family is the main agent of political socialisation there is little overt indoctrination into political traditions. Rather, the traditions and values of a society are absorbed through the expression of general sentiments towards political symbols and personalities.

Although they are a possible agent of political socialization, parents are not necessarily a significant, or influential one. There is no guarantee that the children will reflect their parents' political views. Indeed, many parents and children have radically different views on politics.

For example, a child raised in a religious and conservative household may rebel by becoming a liberal atheist (Jennings & Niemi, 2015).

Friends

Friends can play an important role in our political socialization. While family, schools, and the media all provide people with information about politics and government, friends are often the first people we turn to when we want to discuss these topics.

One's friends can help shape one's political views by providing them with new perspectives and ideas, and by serving as a sounding board for their own beliefs (Reidy et al., 2015).

In addition to shaping views on politics, friends can also influence participation in the political process. If someone's friends are politically active, people are more likely to be engaged in politics themselves. Friends can also provide people with motivation and support when it comes to taking action on issues they care about.

Of course, not all of one's friends will share their political views. In fact, it is often through people's interactions with people who hold different viewpoints that solidify one's own beliefs.

However, even when people disagree with their friends on political issues, they can still play an important role in one's political lives. Friends can help people to see both sides of an issue, which can lead to a more nuanced understanding of the complex issues people face as a society (Reidy et al., 2015).

Education

Another important agent of political socialization is schools. From a young age, children learn about government and politics in their social studies classes. They also engage in classroom discussions and debates about current events and controversial issues.

As children get older, they may participate in student government or extracurricular activities that involve politics, such as Model United Nations. Schools play a significant role in shaping students' political views and preparing them to be active citizens.

In general, effective civic education programs engage students in activities that prepare them for the real world of politics, such as mock elections and legislative hearings (Jennings & Niemi, 2015). The college environment can provide a further opportunity for students to develop their political views and to become politically active.

Many campuses have organizations that promote various causes and engage in political activism, sometimes enduring for someone's entire life. One famous study at Bennington College in the 1930s showed that 1/3 of Bennington students, who came predominantly from wealthy families with conservative values but were educated by political progressives — adopted the progressive ideals of their teachers (Alwin, Cohen, & Newcomb, 1991).

Nonetheless, schools are not necessarily active or effective agents of political socialization. They may neglect to teach basic facts about government to students, favoring more "core" academic subjects like math and reading.

In addition, schools may shy away from controversial topics or current events, for fear of offending parents or sparking heated debates among students.

As a result, many young adults graduate from high school without a good understanding of how government works or what their civic responsibilities are. This lack of knowledge can make it difficult for young adults to fully participate in the political process.

Mass media

Children also learn about politics from the media. Television, movies, and music often contain messages about political issues and events. For example, a child might see a news story about a hurricane and learn about the government's role in providing emergency assistance.

Or a child might watch a movie that depicts a corrupt politician and learn about the importance of honesty in government. In general, as the number of media outlets has increased and new technologies enable for more engaging media experiences, mass media's ability to socialize people to politics has grown substantially.

Because individuals do not have personal access to government or politicians, most people's political experiences occur vicariously through the news. The typical American spends about forty hours per week consuming mass media (Kaiser Family Foundation, 2007).

This high level of media consumption means that people are likely to encounter political messages on a regular basis (Adoni, 1979). While the amount of time that people spend exposed to mass media has increased, there has also been a shift in the types of media that people use.

In particular, there has been a move away from traditional forms of media, such as newspapers and television news programs, and towards newer forms of media, such as the internet and social networking sites.

One consequence of this shift is that people are now more likely to encounter political content through their personal networks, rather than through broader, more impersonal sources.

Many have argued that this can lead to political radicalization , as this has led to the development of echo chambers, where people only encounter information and opinions that confirm their existing beliefs (Adoni, 1979).

Religion

Religion is a central aspect of many people's lives and can play an important role in political socialization. Religious beliefs and values can influence the way people think about political issues and candidates, and religious institutions can provide resources and support for political campaigns.

In addition, religious leaders can help shape public opinion on political issues. Religion can also affect people's voting behavior. Studies have shown that religious affiliation is a strong predictor of voting behavior in the United States.

People who identify as evangelical Christians are more likely to vote Republican, while people who identify as mainline Protestants or Catholics are more likely to vote Democrat.

People who do not have a religious affiliation are more likely to vote for third-party candidates or not vote at all. In addition, religious institutions can provide resources and support for political campaigns (Pearson-Merkowitz & Gimpel, 2009).

Political parties

Political parties and political socialization are two important concepts in the study of political science. Party identification was originally conceptualized as an identity.

It was seen as something that could be developed without the cognitive skills to fully understand the political world. Later, scholars characterized partisanship as a "lifestyle" rather than a lifelong identity. Although it often endures across time.

One's affiliation with a political party is in large part an attitude developed in reaction to the actions of governments and other political actors, notably the economy (Stoker & Bass, 2011).

Political parties are an example of secondary agents of political socialization that have a distinctly political character. They are designed explicitly to spread political ideas, mobilize political engagement, and develop political leaders.

The role of political parties in political socialization is important because they provide a way for people to connect with others who have similar political views. This can help people to develop a better understanding of the political process and make informed decisions about who to vote for.

Additionally, political parties can be a source of information about candidates and issues. They can also help people feel like they are part of a larger community and have a say in the political process.

Being surrounded by members of and advocating for a political party can further solidify the party's political beliefs in its members (Stoker & Bass, 2011).

Work

With the average American spending over eight hours per day at work, the workplace is an important site for political socialization. For many people, coworkers become some of their closest friends, and the workplace provides a built-in support system.

In addition, workplaces provide structure and routine, which can be helpful in difficult times. As people become more and more enmeshed in the community of the work, they become more likely to identify with the beliefs of those around them. In this way, work serves a similar function to peer groups (Washburn & Covert, 2017).

Employers can explicitly use their employee's work as a vehicle for political socialization by requiring attendance at politically-charged seminars or viewing of films and messaging promoting the workplace's political views.

However, more common is the subtle pressure to support the company's favored candidates or policies. Employees who do not conform to these pressures may find themselves passed over for promotions or even lose their jobs.

As a result, people tend to self-censor their views on politics while at work, which can have a significant impact on their overall political views (Washburn & Covert, 2017).

Characteristics and Importance

Children realize they belong to a town and eventually develop political awareness of their nationality. Development of a political self begins when children start to become aware of politics as its own distinct realm in the preschool years. (Dennis, Easton, & Easton, 1969).

Younger children often think of the government personally. The first political objects recognized by children, in America, are the president of the United States and the police officer.

Children tend to idealize these political figures, though this has become less of a trend in recent years as scandals have been made more and more visible by the media (Dennis, Easton, & Easton, 1969).

Many young children have positive attitudes about the political system. School ceremonies such as singing the "Star-Spangled Banner" at the start of each day may inspire patriotism in children. Older children tend to think of the government more abstractly.

By ages 8-10, most children have a basic understanding of government as an institution separate from the individual (Dennis, Easton, & Easton, 1969). Sociologists believe that people are most politically impressionable during the period from their midteens through their mid twenties, when their views are not set and they are open to new experiences.

Nonetheless, significant events in anyone's life - such as work, marriage, parenthood, and retirement, can significantly alter one's political views (Steckenrider & Cutler, 1989).

Political socialization does not automatically lead to political participation, but it is an important factor in understanding why some people participate in politics and some do not. According to classical theories of political socialization, people who are more politically active have typically had more contact with agents of political socialization, such as parents, teachers, and friends (Greenstein, 1965).

In recent years, however, scholars have argued that there are other factors - such as education level or socio-economic status - that are better predictors of political participation than exposure to political socialization agents (Griffin & Newman, 2005).

Some political scientists are concerned about the impact of political socialization on society, particularly how political institutions function. Others concentrate more on what socialization implies for people and how they deal with their political environment.

The breadth of topics those who study political socialization are interested in extends from broad topics such as national identity and consensus political norms to narrower ones such as partisanship and issue preferences.

These broad topics are especially important in understanding how political culture is preserved, while the narrower ones help explain individual-level behavior and attitudes (Jennings & Niemi, 2015).

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a member of the Class of 2024 at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archaeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Nickerson, C. (2022, November 01). Political Socialization? Definition and Examples. Simply Sociology. https://simplysociology.com/political-socialization.html

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