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The Path to Political Awareness: Understanding Political Socialization 

Written by Fatou Lo

Edited by Annika Lilja



Imagine the first time you heard a heated political debate at the dinner table or the moment you cast your first vote. These experiences are just the tip of the iceberg regarding political socialization, the process through which we develop our political beliefs and values. But how exactly do our surroundings shape our political identities? Many understand their political beliefs, but very few truly grasp the interconnectedness of social psychology, upbringing, and politics. The four major factors influencing an individual's political beliefs that will be discussed today are family, school, peers, and media. 


Family is arguably the most impactful method of political socialization. Opinions are often shaped in childhood and primarily by parents or adult relatives. During a child's adolescence, their susceptibility to influence is exacerbated, especially when those influencing are placed on an intellectual hierarchy. This influence can be indirect (modeling) or direct (propelled discussion). Modeling is defined as being a part of a certain political party and advocating for this publicly in front of a child. Propelled discussion is defined as influence through word of mouth. For example, “Don't you think [Insert political candidate] is so terrible?” This complex topic was analyzed by the renowned psychologist Gordon Allport, who noted that children's racial intolerance and implicit bias mirrored their parents. Eleanor Maccoboy layered this discussion by conglomerating evidence that showed a positive linear correlation between party affiliation and candidate endorsement of parents and children (Willoughby et al.). In essence, a child's inclination, or lack thereof, toward a specific spectrum of politics can largely be attributed to the role of their parents during their formative years. In addition to this, institutions of education also play a notable role in an individual's political beliefs.


Schools are viewed as a significant subordinate agent in political socialization. Institutions of learning are playgrounds for intellectual thought and curiosity. It is where children go to develop the ideas that will follow them throughout adulthood. The atmosphere of schools and scholarly discussions by teachers undoubtedly shape children's knowledge of topics. Whether through poorly worded language, outright political partisanship, or simple misinformation, the influence of schools through civics and history courses can influence students' conceptualizations of politics. Education is viewed as an agent of political socialization because that is a significant part of the institutionalized role of schools. Common examples of this in United States schools are the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, student government, and rules for interacting with people of higher authority. Though these examples can be swept under the rug as simply “promoting civic literacy,” participation in activities like this can guide children's political beliefs and determine what is salient to them, especially during impressionability (University of Minnesota). 


The role of family and schools in political socialization is aided by an individual's peers. An individual's peer is defined as “those with whom you have chosen to have emotional bonds and relationships” (Charlie Health). To understand peers' significant role in political socialization, we must first understand social psychology. The desire to be accepted is ubiquitous within humans. It is a principal part of the subject of human psychology. The younger you are, the less time and experience you have had to curate and craft the individual you want to be. This insecurity of identity leads to a heightened desire for approval in the eyes of others. The desire to be accepted manifests itself in the attribution of the viewpoints and beliefs of a group to feel accepted. A heightened sense of belonging contributes heavily to an individual's own sense of self-assurance. Unlike the social hierarchy that is established by families and institutions of learning, this influence comes from people who are of the same social status as oneself. Because children are often separated into peer groups based on sex and age, the ideas that come as a result of the political socialization of individuals within these groups are intensified (University of Minnesota). This intensification of political views does not stop at peer groups but continues into social media dynamics. 


The media is one of the most paramount linkage institutions. A linkage institution is defined as a structure within the society that connects people to the government. Mass media (News organizations, printed news, and TV networks) plays a significant role in crafting an individual's political beliefs. In the early 1930’s Charles Merriam, an impactful political scientist, stated, “Radios and Films have tremendous power to educate…Millions of persons are reached daily through agencies. They are profoundly influenced by the material and interpretations presented in impressive forms, incessantly, and in moments when they are open to suggestions.” The ability of mass media to politically mobilize and socialize is directly correlated with the rise in technological advancements and social media personalization (Christopher B. Kenny). For example, social media algorithms promote eco-chambers (an environment where a person only encounters information or opinions that reflect and reinforce their own) by primarily showing information that aligns heavily with preexisting beliefs. These eco-chambers are breeding grounds for political extremism and eradicate the importance of bipartisanship and tolerance for differing viewpoints. The personalization of social media and extremely biased news television sources contribute significantly to the political beliefs of its subjects. Many individuals truly believe that outwardly biased sources are objective sources of information, which is detrimental in the realm of politics.


Understanding the role of political socialization in modern politics is critical for truly conceptualizing influences, promoting civic literacy and voter turnout, reducing extremism, mobilizing future generations, and critically examining sources of information. In an era where political polarization is apparent, understanding its origins and repercussions is more crucial than ever. By recognizing the factors contributing to our development of different beliefs (family, school, peers, and media), we can find common ground and foster an environment of true positive change. Bridging this divide requires effort from individuals of all different walks of life, with the same goal of promoting unity of different perspectives.


 

Sources:


Willoughby, Emily A., et al. “Parent Contributions to the Development of Political Attitudes in Adoptive and Biological Families.” Psychological Science, vol. 32, no. 12, Nov. 2021, pp. 2023–34, https://doi.org/10.1177/09567976211021844.Accesed 15 June 2024. 


University of Minnesota. “6.2 Political Socialization.” Open.lib.umn.edu, University of Minnesota Libraries Publishing edition, 2016. This edition was adapted from a work originally produced in 2011 by a publisher who has requested that it not receive attribution., 16 Nov. 2016, open.lib.umn.edu/americangovernment/chapter/6-2-political-socialization/. Accessed 15 June 2024. 


Kenny, Christopher B. “Political Participation and Effects from the Social Environment.

American Journal of Political Science, vol. 36, no. 1, Feb. 1992, p. 259, 

https://doi.org/10.2307/2111432. Accessed 15 June 2024.

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