Almost every individual in today's society has a set of political beliefs or values, but most of us hardly ever pause to think why we have such beliefs and how we have acquired them. Are they our own ideas or have we been influenced by others in our thinking? Most political scientists are of the opinion that people are not born with political ideas, nor do we manufacture them, we learn them through a process called political socialization. In this paper we shall see how this is so. In addition, we shall look at the background of political socialization, discuss its importance in today's society, identify the factors that influence the process of political socialization and evaluate their relative importance.
The concept of political socialization can be traced as far back as Plato's philosophical works such as "The Republic" in which he looks for ways to develop an individual's character so that he becomes a useful member of an ideal society. Subsequent theories by philosophers of the Enlightenment era such as the Englishman John Locke reinforce the contention that human mind has no innate ideas
(i.e., people are not born with political ideas) and all our ideas come from experience (i.e., we learn our political beliefs them through political socialization). The subject of political socialization, however, is a relatively new one. It became a popular topic of interest among sociologists, psychologists, educationists and political scientists in the 1950s and research in the subject peaked in the 1960s and the 70s. Although interest in the subject continues, the enthusiasm for it has subsided to an extent with some critics dismissing the field as a "political fad." (Peng, qtd. By Simon and Merrill).
What is Political Socialization?
Political Socialization can be defined as the process through which individuals acquire the information, beliefs, attitudes and values that help them to understand the workings of a political system and as part of the process adopt some of the beliefs, attitudes and values. The term can also be describes as "a developmental process through which the citizen matures politically" (Dawson and Prewitt, p. 17) or the process by which individuals acquire their political beliefs and attitudes.
The importance of the process lies in the fact that the beliefs and the values of the people are the basis for a society's political culture and such culture defines the parameters of political life and governmental action. Since most people acquire the beliefs and attitudes of the society in which they live, the process of political socialization can also be viewed in a negative vein -- as an agent of conformity. One writer has, thus, termed the process as "facilitating the maintenance of the status quo by making people love the system under which they are born" (Sigel, 1969, p. 1). The majority of political scientists, however, view the politicization of the individual as an essentially positive process.
Whether one views the process in a negative or in a positive light, few can deny that acquiring of political beliefs that determine the direction of political and governmental action in a society is an important matter. Active participation of citizens in the polity is part of their civic duty and can only come about through
Factors Influencing Political Socialization
There are a number of factors that directly or indirectly influence our political beliefs. Our discussion of some of these factors below would explain how and why political socialization is a learning process:
The first and foremost influence on the political orientation of a child comes from the family. Just as a young child learns to speak and interpret the language that he is exposed to at an early age (and remains most proficient at throughout his or her life) the political orientation that is acquired from one's family tends to be a great influence in all stages of one's life. How many of us born into a family of Christians or Muslims change our religion at a later stage of our lives? Very few, I suppose. Similarly the political attitudes that we learn from our family members (particularly our parents) stay with us throughout our lives. Families, then, are the primary agent in molding of our habits for life. In the field of 'political socialization,' however, some researchers have downplayed the importance of political socialization at the early stage of a child's life. For example, Neimi and Hepburn, attribute the relative diminishing of interest in political socialization after the 1970s to the "misplaced" importance accorded to research on political socialization in childhood. The authors contend: "To assume that what happened early in life was fully determinative of later thinking and behavior was a gross oversimplification" (Neimi and Hepburn, p. 14) and go on to argue that the period from about age fourteen through the mid-twenties (adolescence and early adult hood) should receive much more attention from political scientists interested in the process of political socialization. This may well be correct and emphasizes the fact that the learning process in political maturity lasts throughout one's life and the political opinions formed in early life are not cast in stone. Family's influence, as an important starting point one's political learning process, is nevertheless an acknowledged fact.
After the initial influence in pre-school age of the immediate family, a child in most societies spends a large part of his or her life in schools. It is inevitable, therefore, that schools -- apart from providing basic learning to a child -- prove to be powerful opinion shapers. In democratic countries such as the United States, the standard curriculum of schools includes an introduction to political processes as elections and voting. The children in our country learn about American history and the basic working of government in schools. The bedrock of American political culture is the premise that the government exists to protect the "inalienable rights" of its citizens and it derives its power from the people. This culture of democracy is inculcated in the children through their school courses and most of them are aware of what to expect from the government at an early age.
The importance of schools as an agent for political socialization is heightened due to the erosion of traditional family and community ties in recent times and the school has to take over some of the functions that were performed by the immediate families and communities. In the United States, a general decline of trust in elected officials since the Watergate scandal has been observed. This has led to diminished interest in political involvement among the citizens which is partly reflected in falling voter turnouts in elections including the Presidential elections. The lack of interest inevitably affects the children too -- and the schools can play an important role in promoting the necessary civic sense in children by introducing more civic courses in schools. Most research on political socialization indicates that U.S. schools have been more successful in imparting information to the students rather than influencing political attitudes. Some researchers feel that political attitudes in school students can be positively influenced if critical thinking and more free and open discussion of controversial issues is encouraged in the classroom than is the case at present. (Hahn, para 13)
3. Peer Groups
Apart from family and schools, peer groups play an important role in imparting political values of young people. Influence of peer groups in the process of political socialization is more pronounced when an issue directly affects the youth. A pertinent example of this is the issue of the Vietnam War during the 1960s. At the time, young people were the most active participants in the movement against the war since they were directly affected by it -- being made to fight in the war that was taking a large toll of lives. It is generally agreed, however, that youthful peer groups have greater influence on the lifestyle and dress as compared to politics.
4. Mass Media
The influence of mass media on political socialization has increased tremendously in the last few decades. The early research in political socialization conducted in the 1960s did not consider the influence of mass media on the political attitudes of people as significant. This remained the accepted wisdom until recently. It is now rightly acknowledged that the mass media (especially the electronic media -- read television) shape the political perception of not just the youth but even the mature population in the country to a large extent. This is hardly surprising considering the fact that the average weekly viewing time has increased annually in American households, from 43 hours in the early seventies to 50 hours in the mid-nineties. Research also indicates that American children spend an average of 28 hours a week watching TV. (Hepburn, p. 72) The rising influence of mass media on is also looked at with deep concern by many. Ben Bagdikian in his hard-hitting book, The Media Monopoly, is particularly critical of the monopolistic control of large corporations and advertisers…