Political socialization more formally defined is the process by which individuals acquire beliefs, values, and habits of thought and action related to government, politics, and society. It goes beyond learning "facts" about how the world operates in practice, instead involving the development of a "worldview" of how people and institutions ideally should operate.
We sometimes say things like "government is not the solution, it's the problem," or "absolute power corrupts absolutely," or "people are by nature competitive," or "we have a responsibility to take care of those who cannot make it in society." These expressions reflect our beliefs about these issues - in other words, they reflect some of the values of our political culture.
One's beliefs and values often seem to be obvious, indisputable truths - "self-evident" truths, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, like the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But, the apparent indisputability of these beliefs is more a reflection of the power of the social forces that have inculcated these notions into our thought patterns from almost the moment we are born. Social scientists have identified a number of "agents of socialization" - people and institutions that teach us the dominant values of the society in which we grow up. As noted in the previous section, these agents include parents, family, friends, school, church and religion, and the mass communications media. They also include work and professional experiences, government and other public institutions.
Here we might distinguish between general socialization (e.g. the acquisition of good manners and proper etiquette) and political socialization (the acquisition of beliefs about people, their society and government). In addition to teaching us basic norms of behavior (like, saying "please" and "thank you"), the various agents of socialization also inculcate attitudes regarding political rights (e.g., one person, one vote), the ideal nature of government (e.g., limited and accountable to the people).
We begin learning basic good behavior first, but we also begin learning social and political attitudes at an early age. Parents are usually the ones who start this process through subtle body language and simple comments about the poor, the rich, business, economic regulation, political participation, and more. A grunt here, a nod there, or repeated references to "those crooks in the government" can make a strong impression on young minds. Because parents are usually the closest and most influential authority figures around, children tend to internalize their parents' views with relatively little questioning.
Only very rarely do parents teach their children fully developed and elaborately articulated theories of democracy or economics. Instead, they 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 socialization.
As we mature, we expand our circle of "influencers" (agents of socialization). These include other family members, then friends, school, and possibly religion and places of worship. Other family and friends are more likely to reinforce the values and viewpoints already absorbed from our parents. After all, our siblings likely fell under the same parental spell that indoctrinated us.
But if family and friends generally share political views, usually because of common race, ethnicity and socio-economic class, individual views inevitably tend to diverge with increasing exposure to a wider set of influences. This process is typically gradual. Public schools tend to be conservative in nature, in the literal sense that they tend to conserve and reproduce the dominant values in society. Grade schools usually take as their mission the task of inculcating a sense of citizenship in their students, which usually involves teaching the accepted histories of the state and the nation, and promoting patriotism and permissible forms of political participation. But spending time outside our immediate circle of friends also inevitably means wider social exposure, and new experiences that may not jibe perfectly with socialization patterns developed at home. The story told by UT anthropologist Richard Flores in a video clip on this page provides examples of the potential significance of childhood confrontations with elements of the political culture and of Texas' political culture in the 1960s.
As people move on to institutions of higher education, they usually encounter still more contradictory and perhaps controversial views, both in and out of the classroom. Institutions of higher education, particularly large public institutions such as those in the Texas system of higher education, are likely to provide a wide array of political influences. Students are likely to be exposed to some views that resonate with their existing beliefs and attitudes, and other views that challenge them. For many, whether the college experience confirms or challenges existing beliefs, joining the university also provides the first impetus to becoming more engaged with politics. The video clips of veteran politicians Ann Richards and Ben Barnes provide two examples of prominent Texans whose time at The University of Texas at Austin was the beginning of life-long participation in politics.
Religion and places of worship, especially those of the majority faith within a society, tend also to reproduce the dominant values of that society, if for no other reason than they are deeply embedded in the society, part of society's "values infrastructure." Nevertheless, within particular faiths, even within the majority religion, disagreements exist over both doctrine and politics. University of Texas history professor and ordained minister Howard Miller points out that all the main-line Protestant Churches in the United States - Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopalian - were split in the 1960s over race. Since the 1960s they have been divided further by tensions over the social and political rights of women, and after that those of gays and lesbians, in society. Adding to this diversity and to these sources of conflict are the rise of the independent churches, some of them very large, that are proliferating in Texas and other states in the rapidly expanding suburban and exurban areas.
Other things that can contribute to our political socialization include work and professional experiences and other powerful personal experiences such as parenthood, loss of a loved one, loss of job, and other encounters outside of our normal daily lives.