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Family as an Agent of Political Socialization in the United States

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Political socialization is an important process by which an individual acquires political attitudes that creates and conveys the political culture of a society. It has been one of the biggest issues of political scientists since Herbert Hyman’s pioneering work in 1959, and it has shown to be an effective approach to understanding the reasoning behind an individual’s political attitudes and behaviours. (Carlson 4) However, there is still much debate amongst scholars regarding the precise meaning of political socialization.

Many scholars from various disciplines outside of political science, such as psychology, sociology, and education have been researching the implications of the political socialization process without fully agreeing on a common, universal meaning for the process which they are attempting to study, as there are many different dimensions of political socialization. (Carlson 4) One aspect of political socialization that has been studied frequently is that of the learning process.

Roberta Sigel, a prominent researcher in the field, has defined political socialization as a “learning process by which people learn to adopt the norms, values, attitudes, and behaviours accepted and practiced by the ongoing system” (2). Other researchers in the field such as Jennifer Benz, Pamela Conover, and Donald Searing all have a similar definition, where political socialization is the process by which “individuals learn and develop values, knowledge, and attitudes about citizenship and politics that contribute to the support of the democratic system in which they live” (3).

Viewing political socialization from this perspective assumes that the learning process occurs in a developmental sequence. From the birth of a child to the day he or she votes in an election, a child would be learning politically relevant attitudes transmitted by the society in which he or she lives. (Carlson 5) As a child’s world and experiences are, most of the time, limited to interactions with his or her family, school, and friends, many studies have been focusing on these agents of political socialization.

As there are researchers setting out in attempts to discover what attitudes are held by most members of a society, there are also those that study an equally important issue; how attitudes are formed in a given society. Focusing on the main agents of political socialization and their impact on developing political attitudes is the most common approach to this study. (Carlson 27) In agreeing on a common meaning of an agent of political socialization, Walter Gerson defines an agent as a “mechanism, social structure, or person through which individuals learn to be motivationally and technically adequate to the performance of certain roles” (42).

With this definition, an agent of political socialization is therefore something that equips members of our society with certain attitudes and norms about our political system and trains citizens to perform certain functions such as voting and to participate within that political system. Researchers have identified the family and schools as among the most important agents of socialization. (Carlson 28) According to the French philosopher Michel Foucault, it is through discourse, or knowledge, that we, and our identities, are created.

If it is true that we are the sum of our experiences, or the knowledge that we encounter, then those in control of our early life experiences have enormous power over us. (Bevir 87) As previously mentioned, a child’s early world experiences are limited to and depends on interactions with his or her family, school, and friends. Therefore, in a sense, the child’s family and teachers create the child’s identity. Most studies in this field have tended to favour the family as the agent having the most crucial role, stating that it is the family which is most influential in the political attitude formation of youth.

One of the most influential studies was the pioneering work of Herbert Hyman. Hyman identifies the family as “foremost among agencies of socialization into politics” (Carlson 29). However, recent studies of political socialization have established substantial doubts about the importance placed on the family and argue that other agents of political socialization, such as schools, do have a larger influence in the political socialization process. Studies by Hess and Torney argue that the “public school is the most important and effective instrument of political socialization in the United States” (Carlson 29).

They go on and state that “environmental differences and peer group influences have also been suggested as agents which contribute substantially to politicizing youth” (Carlson 30). This idea is supported by researchers studying family as an agent of political socialization. Ellen Quintelier, Marc Hooghe, and Gabriel Badescu agree that the family is often considered as the “primary socialization context for young people, also with regard to political attitudes and behaviours” (3).

Usually, young children will experience their first political discussions or their first political activities together with their parents, for example, during dinner table discussions. This may structure the types of citizens they become. Research in developmental psychology provides evidence that “adult identities are shaped by the formation and consolidation of identities that occur during adolescence” (Benz et al. 4). By the age of fifteen, adolescents begin to view politics and government “in terms of the collective rather than the self, and in terms of government’s larger functions” (Benz et al. ).

Scholars Jack McLeod and Steven Chaffee identified communication as key component of importance in the family environment and that, over and above individual styles, these communication patterns influence political attitudes and behaviours. More specifically, they identified two ways on which families tended to communicate; either open issue-oriented, and expressive, or obedient and deferential to parents. (Hoffman par. ) This research was influential and was an important component of research on how children are socialized into a political world, and it serves as a framework for how family scholars examine the effects of family on political socialization.

According to Hoffman, “being raised in a more pluralistic environment, where ideas and discussion are encourage, is associated with political interest, knowledge, discussion, and activity”. In other words, the patterns of communication a family utilizes, whether they talked specifically about government or not, can have an influence on how a child identifies with politics.

Hoffman continues to back up the notion that family is the most important agent of political socialization. She explains that the greatest amount of influence in the political socialization process occurs within the family, and the biggest long-lasting influence of the family is party-affiliation. Hoffman adds that, interestingly, this affects the parents as well; the longer a couple stays together, the more similar their political beliefs become. (par. )

As a child goes through more experiences with family and schools, they begin to develop specific beliefs about authority and learn to understand the importance of political symbols, such as the United States flag. By the time a child is five, he or she has some understanding of the president, political parties, and ideologies. Hoffman reported that through her studies, she found that children and students identify with the same party and ideology as their parents, even if their opinions differed on certain issues.

From her research, Hoffman concluded that family communication patterns involving parents encouraging children to express political opinions are usually better oriented towards public affairs. She described this dimension as ‘concept orientation’. The opposite dimension of this is what McLeod and Chaffee describe as ‘socio-orientation’, where parents stress “the importance of deference and ensure social harmony by insisting that children give in on arguments that might offend others” (Hoffman par. 6).

As a result, children from more socio-oriented families tend to be less critical of information and are exposed to less disagreement at home and in the media. Thus, they are more accepting of ideas picked up at school or elsewhere and lack the critical thinking ability to analyze and generate their own opinions. This results in a lack of or low levels of political knowledge. However, families that encourage open communication and ideas exhibit high levels of news use, discussion, critical thinking, and political knowledge. (Hoffman par. )

This allows the children to think for themselves and create their own political attitudes, and affiliate with certain parties based on their own opinions and viewpoints, not simply their parents’. John Morris, James Henson, and Tim Fackler have a slightly different view on how families affect their children’s political attitudes. They state that children begin learning social and political attitudes at an early age from the parents, through subtle body language and simple comments about “the poor, the rich, business, economic regulation, political participation, and more” (par. ). These can make a strong impression on young minds.

As parents are usually the closest and most influential authority figures around, children tend to accept and internalize their parents’ views with relatively little questioning. (Morris et al. par. 5) After all, many children at a young age believe that their parents hold all the answers and are correct about everything. Morris, Henson, and Fackler continue that only very rarely do parents teach their children fully developed and elaborately articulated theories of democracy or economics.

Instead, they argue, parents offer, usually unconsciously, “only small slices of political culture and ideology, with significant gaps and possible inconsistencies that their children gradually fill in through subsequent contact with other agents of political socialization” (par. 6). As children mature, they expand their circle of influencers, or agents of socialization. These include other family members, friends, school, and possibly religion and places of worship.

Morris, Henson, and Fackler add that other family and friends are more likely to reinforce the values and viewpoints the children already absorbed from their parents, explaining that siblings likely fell under the same parental spell. (par. 7) In his paper, Richard M. Merelman explains that there are five mutually reinforcing propositions that have guided most theory and research on the role of the family in political socializations.

These five propositions are as follows: (1) The family normally promulgates values which support political authority (the support proposition). 2) Because it successfully transmits the political values of older generations to younger generations, the family is a source of political continuity (the continuity proposition). (3) Family life serves as a model of the polity (the congruence proposition). (4) Because people internalize the political values they encounter in the family, they maintain those values over long periods (the primacy proposition). (5) The political values the child learns in the family influence his or her response to other political stimuli encountered in childhood and in later life (the structuring proposition).

Merelman states that families that demonstrate these propositions are a major source of ‘diffuse support’ for a political regime. He adds that families might still find ways of providing diffuse support without following those propositions, however, following them would make the family a particularly secure and effective supportive tool. (462) Merelman concludes that a child’s sociological implications of linkage, symmetry, and family cohesion, are fully met when there is a balanced exchange between the family and the polity.

Middle-class families prepare their children equally for the experience of bureaucratic authority and for the making of democratic choices. Finally, because a family with a more educated background is more coherent than one without such a background, it eases the transmission of political values across generational lines. (Merelman 484) M. Kent Jennings, Laura Stoker, and Jake Bowers have also researched and studied the role of parents in shaping the political character of their children.

Their results demonstrated a high variability in the political similarity between parents and their children. 782) Furthermore, the results appeared to downgrade the direct transmission model, where parental attributes are passed on, wittingly or unwittingly, to their children. Jennings et al. explain that transmission rates tended to vary in a systematic fashion according to the type of political trait. The more concrete, affect-laden, and central the object in question was, the more successful was the transmission. More abstract, ephemeral, and historically conditioned attributes were much less successfully passed on. (Jennings et al. 82)

Furthermore, the importance of the political subject for the parents was an important conditioner of successful reproduction, as was the children’s ability to accurately perceive things. Having both parents with similar political attitudes and viewpoints, as well as other agents of socialization with the same ideas also helped enhance the fidelity of transmission to the children. (Jennings et al. 782) These specifications also support social learning theories explaining how children come to resemble their parents more in some respects than others.

And, similar to Hoffman’s results, Jennings et al. ’s results revealed the importance of communication patterns within the family in shaping the political make-up of the child. (Jennings et al. 782) Jennings et al. concluded that parents can have an enormous degree of influence on the political learning that takes place in pre-adulthood of their children. If parents are politically engaged and frequently discuss politics with the child, transmission rates rise substantially, particularly on topics of general political importance.

Regular political events such as campaigns and elections provide socialization opportunities for parents; however, many parents opt out of these opportunities, in part due to their own low levels of politicization. (Jennings et al. 795) Successful political influences across the generations occur even more frequently when the parents’ political attitudes are reasonably consistent across time and between parents. As a result, families will differ in what political commodities are being passed on. (Jennings et al. 95)

Most children may come to resemble their parents in one aspect or another. But only if parents hold consistent political attitudes on topics spanning the political agenda will children be able to reproduce their parents’ political character to a much broader extent. (Jennings et al. 795) Therefore, it is likely that selective political reproduction becomes an outcome. Jennings at al. also mentions that other factors are sometimes at work in determining the success of political transmission, including parental education and income.

The opinion climate and socio-economic status of the local schools of the children also play a role. However, Jennings et al. argues that the parents are the biggest influence on the political attitudes the children will develop. Although there have not been too much research on how families affect political socialization as an agent, most studies that have been conducted support the theory that families play the biggest role as an agent of political socialization; over schools, peer groups, and mass media.

Still in debate is whether the communication patterns affect how the child develops his or her political attitude. Many scholars still have differing opinions on this matter. However, what can be mostly agreed on is that most children will develop the same political attitudes and viewpoints as their parents. What this means is that traditionally liberal families will grow offspring that will also support liberal parties, and conservative families will grow offspring that will also support conservative parties.

If the deologies of a party changes and conflicts with the views of the family that affiliates themselves with it, then the political attitudes of the family will not change unless the parents do so first and influence the children to follow suit. Although there is some research that will argue against this, much more research and exploration is needed in this field, before enough evidence is obtained that can concretely reveal exactly how much influence families have as an agent of political socialization in developing the political attitudes of their children.

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