In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Political Socialization

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Communication Political Socialization
Diana Owen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 July 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 July 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0158


Political socialization is the process by which people acquire their political attitudes, beliefs, opinions, and behaviors. Fred I. Greenstein offers a comprehensive definition of the socialization process: “Political learning, formal and informal, deliberate and unplanned, at every stage of the life cycle, including not only explicit political learning, but also nominally non-political learning of politically relevant social attitudes” (see Greenstein 1965, cited under Core Texts: Early Research, p. 10). As a result of political socialization, individuals gain knowledge about the political system and how it works. They develop an understanding of their political culture, the system of shared values and ideologies about how government should function in their society. Both the written and unstated rules of the society are passed on generationally, through the socialization process. People gain a sense of belonging to a community and learn about its customs and traditions, which aids them in personally identifying with the political world. They become informed about the role of active citizens and may choose to participate in political life. The field of political socialization has its origins in studies of formal training for democratic citizenship, which emerged in the early 1900s. These studies assumed a hierarchical structure of learning, where authority figures, such as parents and teachers, indoctrinated children into the norms and values of the political system. The term “political socialization” was not used explicitly until the publication of Herbert Hyman’s literature synthesis in 1959. Empirical studies investigating the ways in which people learned about government and developed their political orientations proliferated from the 1950’s through the 1980s. There was a heavy focus on the development of partisan identification, trust in government institutions and actors, and voting. The field had declined by the 1990s, as many of the theoretical assumptions, such as the focus on system stability and citizen acquiescence to authority, had been called into question. The heavy reliance on survey methodologies to explore complicated relationships constrained results. Political socialization scholarship has been revitalized in recent years, often in the guise of studies of civic engagement or civic education. The research agenda has been shaped by concerns about the lack of political interest, modest participation, and low voter turnout of young people. Explorations of classroom civics instruction and service learning have flourished. Scholars have begun to investigate areas that were largely overlooked in earlier research, including the normative and behavioral dimensions of non-electoral engagement and the influence of mass media on the socialization process. The advent of the Internet and digital technologies has opened new avenues for investigation. The revitalization of socialization scholarship has benefitted from the theoretical and analytical frameworks advanced by communication scholarship. Deliberative democracy, for example, is a concept that has become associated with political socialization research, as scholars address issues related to political discussion as a mechanism for political socialization and learning.

Core Texts

Political socialization research can be divided into distinct periods. Early Research focused on how agencies, especially the family, school, and peer group, contributed to the creation of good citizens. Recent Research has moved away from examining agencies in isolation to look more closely at the interplay of agencies and the complex processes underpinning political learning.

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