Political socialization is the “study of the developmental processes by which people of all ages and adolescents acquire political cognition, attitudes, and behaviors”. It refers to a learning process by which norms and behavior acceptable to a well running political system are transmitted from one generation to another. It is through the performance of this function that individuals are inducted into the political culture and their orientations towards political objects are formed.
These agents of socialization influence to different degrees an individual's political opinions: family, media, peers, education, religion, faith, race, gender, age and geography. These factors and many others that people are introduced to as they grow up will affect their political views throughout the rest of their lives. Political beliefs are often formed during childhood, as parents pass down their ideologies to their children and so on.
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The agents a child surrounds him/herself with during childhood are fundamental to the child's development of future voting behaviors. Some of these agents include:
- Family: Glass (1986) recognizes family as a primary influence in the development of a child’s political orientation, mainly due to constant relationship between parents and child.
- Schools: Most influential of all agents, after the family, due to the child's extended exposure to a variety of political beliefs, such as friends and teachers, both respected sources of information for students.
- Mass media: Becker (1975) argue that the media functions as a medium of political information to adolescents and young children.
- Religion: Religious tradition can have a strong effect on someone's political views. For example, Protestants tend to be more conservative (in countries where Protestants are not great majority).
- Political parties: Scholars such as Campbell (1960) note that political parties have very little direct influence on a child due to a contrast of social factors such as age, context, power, etc.
- Work place
Agents of political socialization:
- Family – Most important shaper of basic attitudes; teaches basic political values & loyalty to particular political party through family members
- Schools – Teach patriotism and American mythology; early grades build on and reinforce positive learning
- Peers – Limited in effect because of self-selection; peer group in youth affects mostly “lifestyle issues”
- Mass media – Effect difficult to measure but substantial; promotes cynicism about government; agenda setting – telling us what to think about; framing – tells us what to think about what is presented; promotes awareness about government
- Political leaders and institutions
- Churches and religion – Religious right and religious left
Political socialization begins in childhood. Some research suggests that family and school teachers are the most influential factors in socializing children, but recent research designs have more accurately estimated the high influence of the media in the process of political socialization. On average, both young children and teenagers in the United States spend more time a week consuming television and digital media than they spend in school. Young children consume an average of thirty-one hours a week, while teenagers consume forty-eight hours of media a week. High school students attribute the information that forms their opinions and attitudes about race, war, economics, and patriotism to mass media much more than their friends, family, or teachers. Research has also shown that children who consume more media than others show greater support for and understanding of American values, such as free speech. This may be because eighty percent of the media content children consume is intended for an adult audience. In addition, the impact of the messages is more powerful because children’s brains are “prime for learning,” thus more likely to take messages and representations of the world at face value.
Media’s role into political socialization continues in adulthood through both fictional and factual media sources. Adults have increased exposure to news and political information embedded in entertainment; fictional entertainment (mostly television) is the most common source for political information. The culmination of information gained from entertainment becomes the values and standards by which people judge.
While political socialization by the media is lifelong process, after adolescence, people’s basic values generally do not change. Most people choose what media they are exposed to based on their already existing values, and they use information from the media to reaffirm what they already believe. Studies show two-thirds of newspaper readers do not know their newspaper’s position on specific issues- and most media stories are quickly forgotten. Studies on public opinion of the Bush administration's energy policies show that the public pays attention issues that receive a lot of media coverage, and forms collective opinions about these issues. This demonstrates that the mass media attention to an issue affects public opinion. More so, extensive exposure to television has led to “mainstreaming,” aligning people’s perception of political life and society with television’s portrayal of it.
Patterns in Political Socialization
There are different patterns in socialization based on race, ethnicity, gender, age, income, education, geographic region, and city size. For example, generally, African Americans and Hispanics rely on television for their information more than white people. More women than men watch daytime television, and more men than women follow sports programs. Older people read more newspapers than younger people, and people from the ages of twelve to seventeen (although they consume the most media) consume the least amount of news. Northerners listen to radio programs more than Southerners do. News outlets on the East Coast tend to cover international affairs in Europe and the Middle East the most, while West Coast news outlets are more likely to cover Asian affairs; this demonstrates that region affects patterns in media socialization. Income level is also an important factor; high-income families rely more on print media than television, and consume less television than most of the population.
Ultimately, however, the common core of information, and the interpretation the media applies to it, leads to a shared knowledge and basic values throughout the United States. Most media entertainment and information does not vary much throughout the country, and it is consumed by all types of audiences. Although there are still disagreements and different political beliefs and party affiliations, generally there are not huge ideological disparities among the population because the media helps create a broad consensus on basic US democratic principles.
- Powell, L., & Cowart, J. (2003). Political campaign communication: inside and out. Allyn and Bacon.
- Varkey, K. (2003). Political Theory A Philosophycal Perspective. Indian Publishers Distributors.
- J. Glass, V. B. (1986). Attitude similarity in three generational families: Socialization, status inheritance, or reciprocal influence? American Sociological Review , 685-698.
- L.B. Becker, M. M. (1975). Family traditions. In S. C. (ed), Political Communication: Issues and strategies for research (pp. 126–139). New York: Praeger.
- Campbell, C. M. (1960). The American Voter. New York: John Wiley.
- Graber, Doris; Dunaway, Johanna (2014). Mass Media and American Politics. CQ Press. ISBN 978-1-4522-8728-7.