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May 22, 2013

Fathers, sons, and political preferences

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Written by: DW

By David Wisner

There is a wide ranging debate ongoing these days about the sources of political behavior, be they social or  genetic. Elias Dinas of the University of Nottingham has published a very interesting bit of research on the effects on youth political socialization of politically engaged parents. The general question asked is how “political attitudes of parents influence those of children.”

Counter-intuitively, perhaps, Dinas argues that the evidence points to a strange trend. Children of politically active parents do engage themselves. But they do not necessarily “retain their parents’ views.”

What accounts for the fact that some children retain the partisan affiliation of their parents when they themselves become adults, while others do not?

“If one pictures parental influence as a form of partisan legacy, we are led to conclude that the more vivid parental politicisation has been during childhood, the more likely its footprints are to persist during adulthood. Parents who provide unambiguous partisan cues are those parents who talk more about politics. These parents, according to the established wisdom, should then be more successful in transmitting an enduring partisanship to their offspring. It turns out, however, that this logic is partially wrong. The reason is that it considers the strength of the initial socialisation, but neglects the strength of the change-inducing circumstances individuals confront later in life…

Political engagement on the part of parents… plays a dual role in the political socialisation of the young. It boosts the intensity of pre-adult political learning, strengthening the transmission of political attitudes from parent to child. It also makes children more politically engaged themselves. Taken together, a seemingly counter-intuitive pattern arises. Young people from politicised homes may be more likely to acquire an initial partisan orientation from their parents, but they are also more likely to abandon that preference as they enter adulthood and experience politics for themselves. Evidence from the US and Britain confirms this perspective…”

I question whether students who attend overtly politically partisan colleges and universities in the US (particularly those which are Christian and conservative in orientation) are not overly influenced by their parents, but this may represent only a sliver of young people in their larger age cohort. What is nonetheless missing from this brief presentation is the degree of intensity of political engagement among youth groups studied. Do politically active parents produce offspring that will be equally engaged, regardless of partisan orientation?

A second question I have for this intriguing line of research concerns the degree to which one can measure the impact of socialization through citizenship education and civic engagement programs like those so prevalent in the English speaking world. The Dukakis Center, which I direct, is about to launch an ambitious civic leadership program for adolescents. If, as Dinas claims, a “sufficient condition” for political change is engagement “at least in part originating in family socialization, and “knowledge of parental politicisation” is vital for an understanding of this engagement, what can one say about other explicit efforts  to form young people’s understanding of an attitudes toward the political world?

 

 






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