What Is Political Socialization? Definition and Examples

A group of elementary students saying the Pledge of Allegiance
A group of elementary school students saying the Pledge of Allegiance.

Hill Street Studios / Getty Images

Political socialization is the learning process by which people develop an understanding of their political identities, opinions, and behavior. Through various agents of socialization, such as parents, peers, and schools, the lifelong experiences of political socialization play a key role in developing the traits of patriotism and good citizenship.

Key Takeaways: Political Socialization

  • Political Socialization is the process by which people develop their political knowledge, values, and ideology.
  • The process of political socialization begins in childhood and continues throughout one’s lifetime.
  • Politically socialized people are more likely to actively participate in the political process.
  • In the United States, political socialization tends to develop a belief in the virtues of democracy.
  • The main sources or agents of political socialization in people’s lives are family, school, peers, and the media. 

Political Socialization Definition

Political scientists have concluded that political beliefs and behavior are not genetically inherited. Instead, individuals decide throughout their lifetimes where and how they fit into the political values and processes of their country through the process of political socialization. It is through this learning process that the standards and behaviors that contribute to a smoothly and peacefully functioning political system are passed between generations. Perhaps most visibly, it how people determine their political orientation—conservative or liberal, for example.

Beginning in childhood, the process of political socialization continues throughout a person’s lifetime. Even people who have shown no interest in politics for years can become highly politically active as older citizens. Suddenly in need of health care and other benefits, they may be motivated to support candidates sympathetic to their cause and to join senior advocacy groups such as the Gray Panthers.

Younger children tend to first associate politics and government with highly recognizable individuals such as the president of the United States and police officers. Unlike children of past generations who generally admired government leaders, modern young people tend to develop a more negative or distrustful view of politicians. This is to some extent due to the increased media coverage of political scandals.

While young people usually learn about the political process from older people, they often develop their views and can eventually influence the political behavior of adults. For example, many adult Americans were swayed to changed their political orientation as a result of young peoples’ protests to the Vietnam War.

In the United States, political socialization often imparts a shared belief in the virtues of democracy. School children begin to grasp the concept of patriotism through daily rituals, such as reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. By age 21, most Americans have come to associate the virtues of democracy with the need to vote. This has led some scholars to criticize political socialization in the United States as a form of forced indoctrination that discourages independent thought. However, political socialization does not always result in support for democratic political institutions. Especially during later adolescence, some people adopt political values that vary greatly from those held by the majority.

The ultimate goal of political socialization is to ensure the survival of the democratic political system even during times of extreme stress, such as economic depression or war. Stable political systems are characterized by regularly held elections conducted according to legally established procedures, and that the people accept the results as legitimate. For example, when the outcome of the tumultuous 2000 U.S. presidential election was finally decided by the Supreme Court, most Americans quickly accepted George W. Bush as the winner. Instead of violent protests, the country moved on with politics as usual.

It is during the political socialization process that people typically develop their levels of belief in the legitimacy of the political system and their level of political efficacy, or power, to influence that system. 

Political Legitimacy

Political legitimacy describes people’s level of belief in the validity, honesty, and fairness of their country’s political processes, such as elections. People are far more likely to be confident that a highly legitimate political process will result in honest leaders who respond to their needs while rarely abusing their governmental powers. People trust that elected leaders who overstep their authority or engage in illegal activity will be held accountable through processes such as impeachment. Highly legitimate political systems are more likely to survive crises and to implement new policies effectively.

Political Efficacy

Political efficacy refers to individuals’ level of trust that by participating in the political process they can bring about change in the government. People who feel a high level of political efficacy are confident that have the knowledge and resources necessary to take part in the political process and that the government will respond to their efforts. People who feel politically effective also believe strongly in the legitimacy of the political system and are thus more likely to participate in it. People who trust that their vote will be fairly counted and will matter are more likely to go to the polls. People who feel politically effective are also more likely to take strong stands on government policy issues. For example, in the 2010 U.S. midterm elections, many people dissatisfied with what they considered to be excessive government spending supported the ultra-conservative Tea Party movement. Of the 138 Republican candidates for Congress identified as getting significant Tea Party support, 50% were elected to the Senate and 31% were elected to the House.

Agents of Socialization

While political socialization can take place almost anywhere at any time, from early childhood on, people’s political perceptions and behaviors are directly or indirectly shaped by various socializing agents, such as family, school and peers, and the media. Not only do these agents of socialization teach young people about the political system, they can also influence people’s political preferences and level of desire to take part in the political process.

Family

Many scholars consider the family to be the earliest and most-impactful agent of political socialization. Especially in families that are highly politically active, the influence of parents in the future political orientation of their children is most pronounced in the areas of party affiliation, political ideology, and level of participation. For example, children of highly politically active parents tend to develop an interest in civics making them more likely to become politically active as adolescents and adults. Similarly, since politics is often discussed in “dinner table” family settings, children often first imitate and may grow up to embrace the political party preferences and ideologies of their parents.

Research has also shown that the future political involvement of children is often influenced by the socioeconomic status of their parents. Children of affluent parents are more likely to attain college-level educations, which tend to develop higher levels of political knowledge and interest. Parental socioeconomic status also tends to plays a role in the development of class-oriented and special-interest political affiliations and levels of civic involvement.  

Children, however, do not always continue to embrace the political orientation and practices of their parents. While they are more likely to adopt their parents’ views as teenagers, children of politically involved parents are also more likely to change their party affiliation during early adulthood as they become exposed to new political points-of-view.

School and Peer Groups

In conjunction with the parental transfer of political attitudes and behaviors to their children, the influence of school on political socialization has been the subject of much research and debate. It has been established that level of education is closely related to interest in politics, voter turnout, and overall political participation.

Starting in grade school, children are taught the basics of elections, voting, and the ideology of democracy by choosing class officers. In high school, more sophisticated elections teach the fundamentals of campaigning and the influence of popular opinion. College-level courses in American history, civics, and political science encourage students to examine government institutions and processes.

However, it has often been suggested that higher education can divide the population into higher and lower classes, thus giving the better-educated upper classes an unequal level of influence over the political system. In this and other ways, the actual effect of education remains unclear. In the words of David Campbell, professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, “Specifically, we have a limited understanding of how schools do, or do not, foster political engagement among their adolescent students.”

School is also one of the first settings in which young people develop intellectual relationships with peers—people other than their parents or siblings. Research indicates that children often have their first opinion-sharing discussions about politics with their peers. Peer groups, often acting as social networks, also teach valuable democratic and economic principles such as information sharing and the equitable exchange of goods and services.

The Media

Most people look to the media—newspapers, magazines, radio, television, and the internet—for political information. Despite growing dependence on the internet, television remains the dominant information source, especially with the proliferation of 24-hour all-news cable channels. Not only does the media influence public opinion by providing news, analysis, and a diversity of opinion, it exposes people to modern sociopolitical issues, such as drug abuse, abortion, and racial discrimination.

Quickly eclipsing conventional media in importance, the internet now serves as a source of political information. Most major television and print news outlets now have websites and bloggers also offer a wide range of political information, analysis, and opinion. Increasingly, peer groups, politicians, and government agencies utilize social media websites such as Twitter to share and disseminate political information and commentary. 

As people spend more of their time online, however, many scholars question whether these internet forums encourage a healthy sharing of different sociopolitical views or simply serve as “echo chambers” in which the same perspectives and opinions are shared only among like-minded people. This has resulted in some of these online sources being accused of spreading extremist ideologies, often supported by disinformation and unfounded conspiracy theories.   

Sources

  • Neundorf, Anja and Smets, Kaat. “Political Socialization and the Making of Citizens.” Oxford Handbooks Online, 2017, https://www.oxfordhandbooks.com/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199935307.001.0001/oxfordhb-9780199935307-e-98.
  • Alwin, D. F., Ronald L. Cohen, and Theodore M. Newcomb. “Political Attitudes Over the Life Span.” University of Wisconsin Press, 1991, ISBN 978-0-299-13014-5.
  • Conover, P. J., “Political Socialization: Where’s the Politics?” Northwestern University Press, 1991,
  • Greenstein, F. I. “Children and Politics.” Yale University Press, 1970, ISBN-10: 0300013205.
  • Madestam, Andreas. “Do Political Protests Matter? Evidence from the Tea Party Movement.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics, November 1, 2013, https://www.hks.harvard.edu/publications/do-political-protests-matter-evidence-tea-party-movement.
  • Verba, Sidney. “Family Ties: Understanding the Intergenerational Transmission of Political Participation.” Russell Sage Foundation, 2003, https://www.russellsage.org/research/reports/family-ties.
  • Campbell, David E. “Civic Engagement and Education: An Empirical Test of the Sorting Model.” American Journal of Political Science, October 2009, https://davidecampbell.files.wordpress.com/2015/08/6-ajps_sorting.pdf. 
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Longley, Robert. "What Is Political Socialization? Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo, Mar. 3, 2021, thoughtco.com/political-socialization-5104843. Longley, Robert. (2021, March 3). What Is Political Socialization? Definition and Examples. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/political-socialization-5104843 Longley, Robert. "What Is Political Socialization? Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/political-socialization-5104843 (accessed April 12, 2021).