Political Socialization - Definition, Agents, Functions and Characteristics


Political Socialization -  Definition, Agents, Functions and Characteristics

What is Political Socialization? 

Political Socialization may be defined as the process of transferring knowledge, beliefs, attitudes and general dispositions about politics, from one generation to the other, and that accumulates almost unconsciously through citizens and people‘s interactions with social institutions such as the family, the religious houses, the schools, the tertiary institutions, the media, political parties and so on. These institutions through which political socialization accumulates and transfers are, in social sciences called agencies of political socialization.

Political socialization is the "process by which individuals learn and frequently internalize a political lens framing their perceptions of how power is arranged and how the world around them is (and should be) organized; those perceptions, in turn, shape and define individuals' definitions of who they are and how they should behave in the political and economic institutions in which they live.

Political socialization also encompasses the way in which people acquire values and opinions that shape their political stance and ideology: it is a "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 behaviors 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. Schools, media, and the state have a major influence in this process.

Learning Objective

Knowledge acquire in this page shall enable you to understand:

(a) Definition of political socialization by scholars.

(b) Agents of Political Socialization

(c) Distinguishing between the primary and the secondary ones.

(d) Functions of Political Socialization

(e) Characteristics of Political Socialization

Definition of political socialization by scholars

Foremost, we shall examine political socialization as it is defined by many scholarly perspectives and period and shall equally provide some factors that determine it.

Beginning from the earlier time, Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba define political socialization as a: Learning process by which the norms associated with the performance of political roles as well as fundamental political values and guiding standards of political behavior are learned'. This is contained in their article entitled, 'The Comparative Study of Political Socialization.

Apart from this, Robert Levine asserts, the process of political socialization as involving the acquisition by an individual, of behavioral dispositions relevant to political groups, political systems and political processes.

Let us put other definitions in more direct forms from the purview of other scholars.

Eric Rowe: define political socialization as the process by which the values, beliefs and emotions of a political culture are passed on to succeeding generations‖.

Harry Eckstein: asserts that Political socialization is the process through which operative social norms regarding politics are implanted, political roles institutionalized and political consensus created, either effectively or ineffectively.

Roberta Sigel: Also say that Political socialization is the learning process by which the political norms and behaviors acceptable to an ongoing political system are transmitted from generation to generation.

Gerald Bender: Furthermore, states that Political socialization is the process through which the individual internalizes politically relevant attitudes, beliefs, cognitions and values.

More recent definitions of political socialization include those of Eric Siraev and Richard Sobel that says, Political socialization is a lifelong process by which individuals learn political attitudes and behaviors. It is part of the broader socialization process whereby an individual becomes a member of a particular society and takes on its values and behaviors. Social and cultural conditions mediate political socialization.

Powell & Cowart defined Political socialization as the study of the developmental processes by which children of all ages (12 to 30), and adolescents acquire political cognition, attitudes, and behaviors‖.

It is believed that through the performance of the function of political socialization that individuals are inducted into the political culture and their orientations towards political objects are formed.

Although political socialization is made possible through certain agencies certain factors still determine whether or not a person will be socialized and in whatever direction. The factors are:

(a) Strength of Socializing Agency: It has been argued often that some socializing agents are stronger and more effective than others. The family for instance is the first agent of political socialization that a child is exposed to at a tender age when his or her personality is still being formed. This is followed by the Schools (elementary and secondary). These two agencies are more effective in socializing people compared to the media and the political party.

(b) Proximity to and Interaction with Socialization Agency: Agencies of socialization become effective in the lives of those who are close to as well as who interact with them. An atheist who has no religion is not, for instance likely to be socialized by the church or the shrine, while an illiterate introvert may miss the socializing opportunities offered by the school and the peer group.

(c) Reinforcement System: Socialization patterns can sometimes depend on reinforcement system. An agent that has a system of positive reinforcement is more likely to be more effective in socializing people in certain directions; vice versa. This is particularly true in families and schools. If interest in politics is positively reinforced in the family and school, children in the two institutions have better chances of political socialization than where it is not.

(d) Period and Age of Socialization: Although socialization is a continuous exercise in the life of man, social scientists agree that personalities, believes and attitudes of people are often fully formed when they are young, say below 20 years. The interpretation of this is that socialization tends to be more effective when it occurs to people of tender ages, and at the period of their lives during which their personalities are being developed.


Agents of Political Socialization

The primary goals of this content are to discuss the agents of political socialization. These agents refer to institutions and structures that socialize people into politics, the agents that people are introduced to as they grow up, and that affect their political views throughout the rest of their lives.

There are many agents of political socialization which are not limited to Family, Media, Peers, Education, Religion, Race, Gender, Age and Geography, but in fact, at every point where man interacts with man, there are bond be or exist political socialization.

In a sense we can divide the agents of political socialization into two broad categories:

1. Primary Agents of Political Socialization

2. Secondary or Subordinate Agents of Political Socialization

The two categories shall be fully discussed.


Primary Agents of Political Socialization

The primary agents of political socialization are those that people first come across when they are children and they unavoidably interact with as they grow. Almost all human beings pass through these agents, though not necessarily on their will. The primary agents of political socialization in today‘s world include the family, the school, the peer group and the religious gatherings. In the contemporary world these socialization agencies can hardly be avoided, and they affect people‘s believes and attitudes towards politics.

In what follows we shall discuss these agents one after the other.

(a) The Family: The family is a principal agent of political socialization, or any other form of socialization at all. In fact, M. Kent Jennings in his 2007 work titled Political Socialization asserts that "from the early scholarly inquiries on through to the present time, the role of the family as a prime agent of socialization has occupied an imports in the literature". This is because the family is a relatively small and enduring institution that makes the processes of learning and imitation easier. Apart from this, the family is the first point of call of the individual, and, to that extent, it determines a lot about individual's behavior; including the political. Above all, every human being, by no choice of theirs, is presumably born into a family, so, except in few cases, every human being passes through the socialization of the family.

(b) The School: Formal educational system organized in forms of schools and colleges is a common phenomenon in the modern world. In fact, most advanced countries of the world are beginning to lay claim to zero percent illiteracy level in their society while third world countries are following suit. The implication of this is that everyone in the society will now have to pass through one form of school or the other. Thus, the school, like the family, is an agent of socialization that is almost impossible to escape. Some societies deliberately teach subjects such as civil education, political history and government to educate their citizens on politics. National anthems and other extra curriculum exercises are basically performed in schools to expose students to certain values about politics. What most people know and believe about politics is therefore, especially in today‘s world, a function of school attendance. The school then qualifies as a primary agency of political socialization.

(c) The Peer Group: Man, by nature, Aristotle has long insisted, is a political animal. What you get from this is that man is a gregarious being that love to live with, and around other men. In the process of this social interaction peer groups are formed. These groups consist of people of same or close age brackets, and members of the groups learn many things socially from one another through emulation and reciprocal determinism. If a person belongs to a peer group that is politically conscious for instance, the tendency of the person to become very active and interested in the politics of his nation is very high due to the kind of socialization received in the course of interacting with his or her peers. Peer group is also a primary agent of political socialization because it is difficult to escape in the process of existing in the society. An even school where the child is socialized is full of peer group influence, though many peer groups also exist outside the school.

(d) Religious Gatherings: Apart from the family and the school, organized religious gathering is another very strong agency of political socialization in the modern world. It is almost inescapable today. When people gather in the name of religion, they often inevitably discuss socio political issues that concern them directly or indirectly, politics being, according to David Easton, ―authoritative allocation of values in the society‖. Values that may be authoritatively allocated to, or omitted from people‘s homes, families, streets, work places, states of residence, international relation and so on, often make people relate with politics even in religious gatherings where they are supposed to be worshiping. Today, religious associations sponsor candidates into elective positions in order to gain influence. Citizens of some countries consider the religious affiliation of a political candidate as determinant of his or her capacity to rule, and such beliefs color behavior even in elections.

The discussions and decision on these political issues are often taken in religious gatherings; hence, religion becomes a strong agent of political socialization. In summary, take a look at your life today, the foregoing four structures family, school, peer groups that is friends and colleagues- as well as your religious gathering are four structures that you constantly interact with almost on weekly basis, and in all of them, it is almost certain that politics is discussed either directly or indirectly. This makes the four of them primary agents of political socialization.


Secondary or Subordinate Agents of Political Socialization

Structures and institutions such as the media and political parties are not common to all men; they are optional, so they belong to the secondary political socialization agents. Other ones in this category are gender and age which are though common to all men, yet, do not command strong organizational political influence that, say, the church and the school may have. Let us examine these four agents of political socialization in details.

(a) The Media: The media is a strong agent of political socialization. The print media produces newspapers and magazines while the electronic media comes in forms of radio and television. In all of these media politics and political issues are discussed in daily basis. In fact, it has been argued by Allan Smith that the 21st century press media is a political media as majority of the news items are either completely political or are connected to politics. The most recent one is the social media: the Facebook and the Twitters that are fast penetrating the whole world. Issues discussed in all these media create values, attitudes and believes in people, and as such, stand as means of socializing them into politics as well as influencing their political behavior.

(b) Political Party: A political party is an organized body of people who participate in political activities with the sole aim of getting political power. Membership of a political party automatically translates to discussion and practice of political activities, with all the pranks, and the intrigues. People who belong to political parties learn a great deal of their political tricks, values, orientations, opinions and believes from them, so, the political party is a very strong agent of political socialization. In specific terms, political parties have orientations and ideological divides. There are left wing parties, right wing parties, mass parties and so on, and the orientation that is dominant in each of these parties are systematically handed down to their members from one generation to another. In Britain you have the conservative (right wing) and the labour (left wing) political parties. In the United States it is between the Republican (right wing) and the Democrat (left wing) parties. Although Nigerian political parties have been unstable and episodic since independence, the current ideological divide still stands between the PDP and the APC.

(c) Gender: Until recently when universal adult suffrage has permeated the whole world, gender was a very key issue in political socialization. In the earlier Athenian society in Greece, women were not allowed to participate in politics, and so it was in some other parts of the world. The implication is that men would be differently socialized to form different believes opinions and orientation of politics, compared to women. Now that the dichotomy is changing rapidly, and universal adult suffrage is gaining popularity around the world; women‘s socialization in politics is fast taking different dimension. Conversely, in the old Oyo kingdom where women were known to occupy important political positions such as Iyalode, Iyaloja and Iyalaje, and where they exerted great influence in the politics of their people, there was a difference in gender relationship with politics, and this created egalitarian and democratic values among the people. You may wish to read Eesuola‘s. Using Indigenous Political Structures to Facilitate Democratic Ideals in Nigeria: Lessons from Pre-Colonial Yoruba Kingdom, published in the University of Lagos, Nigeria, Sociological Review, Volume 9, 2011.

(d) Age: Also unlike gender, age was and is still a strong factor in the politics of courtiers. Today, as a result of universal adult suffrage, most constitutions allow citizens of eighteen years to vote and be voted for. In some countries where gerontology is common in political activities, only old people take certain electoral positions in politics. These different practices in different societies often shape opinions and orientations of people towards politics, so, age is equally an agent of political socialization. Let us also quickly add that socialization may involve an individual's formative years, or his mature years, or both. Political socialization through the primary agency is not only latent, but also tends to occur during the formative years of an individual. Political socialization through secondary agencies, on the other hand, tends to be manifest and to occur during an individual's relatively mature years. Political socialization can produce either systemic or non-systemic change. Systemic change refers to a fundamental or far-reaching change in the distribution or exercise of authority in the political system. Non-systemic change, on the other hand, refers to relatively insignificant or incremental changes in the patterns of political participation and association which do not alter or upset the existing distribution of power and authority in the polity. Indeed, generally speaking, political socialization is essentially a stabilizing process and hardly produces systemic change. The political socialization process becomes destabilizing, or produces systemic change, only under conditions of rapid modernization or general societal crisis.


Functions of Political Socialization

(a) Inter-generational Transmission of Political Values: Political socialization assists every society in preserving political culture across time. It also helps to inculcate political values and orientation in people. This is the function we call inter-generational transmission of political norms, and, by extension, values, symbols and ideas. For instance, a person who attends the university, majors in engineering and later gets employment in an engineering firm may not at all understand the workings of law making and recall except he or she witnessed it at the level of students union which the school as an agent of political socialization offers. In an increasingly complicated world where politics is fast becoming everyone‘s business even though we do not all major in politics, agents of socialization serves the purpose of transmitting political values and norms from one generation to the other, and this helps in ensuring stability in the society.

(b) Stability of Polity:  By virtue of performing the foregoing function of inter-generational transmission of values and inculcation of political culture, political socialization helps to maintain continuity and stability in the society. Such stability is needed to advance the course of the society from all walks of life. To the extent that political socialization is a means of role-training therefore, it, at any time equips the members of a society with the basic skills necessary for political participation or the performance of important political roles.

(c) Creation of Hegemonic:  Order Political socialization helps the society to create hegemonic order. Every political environment needs hegemony to stabilize and develop, hegemony being a subtle, non-coerced assimilation of how things are done in a society. Political socialization helps a society to foster this, and every member of the society needs only little push or coercion to obey the law and promote good values.

(d) National Discipline:  National discipline is very important in political socialization. The reason is that it makes it easy to ensure some degree of discipline among members of a political community. In other words, political socialization curbs or controls disruptive political behavior by ensuring that members of a society behave in a manner that is socially acceptable to the majority of the people, and especially the hegemonic class.

Furthermore, political socialization assists in promotion of patriotism and nationalism. People, who learn the political values, believe and orientations of their people and hand the same down from one generation to the other tend to become obsessed with it. They see themselves as being embedded in such values and ideas and are often willing to defend and promote it at any time necessary. This is called patriotism, and it is useful for the domestic and international aura of a state.

Political socialization performs some functions in the polity. These functions are basically for continuity and stability among politicians and other actors that are involved in politics. Moreover, they affect not only the political, but also the economic and social strata of a political community.

Characteristics of Political Socialization

There some features of political socialization. These are:

1. Political socialization is the pinnacle of a society’s political values or culture. Any education, therefore, is not political socialization.

2. The purpose of political socialization is to educate and enhance the members of the society politically, to see them become effective members of the political society, and to preserve the continuity of the political values of the society.

3. Early childhood is an important time for political socialization. But this is not limited to a few years of childhood. Political socialization continues throughout the life of the individual.

4. Political socialization occurs mainly in three ways – imitation, instruction, and motivation. Imitation tendency is more prevalent in children, whereas adolescents and adults have a combination of imitation, instruction, and motivation.

5. Through the process of political socialization, the increase in support, support for the prevailing political system, the values in favor of conventional institutions, the legitimacy of the government are increased.

6. All persons belonging to a political society are subject to political socialization and are effective throughout their lives.



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