Forming Public Opinion

Forming Political Values

People form political values throughout their life cycle through different agents of political socialization, including family, media, and education.

Learning Objectives

Explain the agents of socialization that inform the individual’s political values

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • In childhood, political socialization and the formation of political values revolves around a burgeoning awareness of living in a certain place, being a part of a certain political system, and recognizing political or government leaders.
  • The most influential years for the formation of political values is young adulthood, when people are most open to new ideas and encounter new opportunities for political engagement in college and the workplace.
  • The agents a child surrounds him/herself with during childhood are crucial to the child’s development of future voting behaviors.
  • The formation of political values occurs through political socialization. The most important agents of this socialization include family, school, peers, church, and the media.

Key Terms

  • political equality: a system in which all people have the same rights and freedoms to participate in government and its institutions
  • political socialization: The “developmental processes by which children and adolescents acquire political cognition, attitudes, and behaviors. ” It refers to a learning process by which political norms and behavior are transmitted from one generation to another.

Political Socialization

Political socialization is a concept concerning the “study of the developmental processes by which children of all ages (12 to 30) and adolescents acquire political cognition, attitudes, and behaviors”. It refers to a learning process by which norms and behavior 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.

Agents of Socialization

The following agents of Socialization influence to different degrees an individual’s political opinions:

  • Family
  • Media
  • Peers
  • Education
  • Religion
  • Faith
  • Race
  • Gender
  • Age
  • Geography

These factors and many others that people are introduced to as they grow up will affect their political views throughout the rest of their lives. Political beliefs are often formed during childhood, as parents pass down their ideologies to their children and so on.

Factors

The agents a child surrounds him/herself with during childhood are crucial to the child’s development of future voting behaviors. Some of these agents include:

Family: Glass (1986) recognizes family as a primary influence in the development of a child’s political orientation, mainly due to constant relationship between parents and child, detailed in the table Family as a Primary Influence below.

Schools: Most influential of all agents, after the family, due to the child’s extended exposure to a variety of political beliefs, such as friends and teachers, both respected sources of information for students.Mass Media: Becker (1975) argue that the media functions as a medium of political information to adolescents and young children.

Religion: Religious tradition can have a strong effect on someone’s political views. For example, Protestants tend to be more conservative (in countries where Protestants are not great majority).

Political Parties: Scholars such as Campbell (1960) note that political parties have very little direct influence on a child due to a contrast of social factors such as age, context, power, etc.

Agents of Political Socialization

  1. Family – Most important shaper of basic attitudes Teaches basic political values & loyalty to particular political party
  2. Schools – Teach patriotism and American mythology Early grades build on and reinforce positive learning
  3. Peers – Limited in effect because of self-selection Peer group in youth affects mostly “lifestyle issues”
  4. Mass Media – Effect difficult to measure but substantial Promotes cynicism about government Agenda Setting – Telling us what to think about Framing – Tells us what to think about what is presented
  5. Political leaders and institutions
  6. Churches and Religion Religious right and religious left
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Senior Citizen Involvement: People who have not participated in politics much throughout their life may participate more in retirement.

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Pledging Allegiance: Children learn political values through political socialization. This can occur through rituals, such as the recitation of the pledge of allegiance at the beginning of each school day.

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Student Protesters: Student activists in the 1960s protested against US involvement in the Vietnam War. Some activists developed more favorable attitudes toward government as they matured, had families, and became homeowners.

Models of Political Socialization

People learn political values and identities by interacting with other people and the media in a process called political socialization.

Learning Objectives

Describe how political socialization occurs.

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Political socialization refers to a process of political learning in which norms and beliefs about the political process are passed on from one generation to another.
  • Political socialization is primarily a one-way process, in which agents of socialization (such as family or peers) pass on political values to subjects. Subjects are usually young people and are mostly passive in this political learning.
  • In the United States, young people are socialized to accept specific American values. This includes acceptance of democracy, rule of law, respect for authorities, and the capitalist system.
  • People are not always socialized to accept the standard rules and norms of a society. Sometimes, political socialization can pass on norms that are very different from the status quo.

Key Terms

  • political socialization: The “developmental processes by which children and adolescents acquire political cognition, attitudes, and behaviors. ” It refers to a learning process by which political norms and behavior are transmitted from one generation to another.

Psychological theories of self development have been broadened by sociologists who explicitly study the role of society and social interaction in self development. Charles Cooley and George Mead both contributed significantly to the sociological understanding of the development of self. Lawrence Kohlberg and Carol Gilligan developed their ideas further, researching how our sense of morality develops. Gilligan added the dimension of gender differences to Kohlberg’s theory.

How do we get from being newborns to being humans with “selves? ” Mead believed that there is a specific path of development that all people go through. During the preparatory stage, children are only capable of imitation: they have no ability to imagine how others see things. They copy the actions of people with whom they regularly interact, such as their mothers and fathers. This is followed by the play stage, during which children begin to take on the role that one other person might have. Thus, children might try on a parent’s point of view by acting out “grownup” behavior, like playing “dress up” and acting out the “mom” role, or talking on a toy telephone the way they see their father do.

During the game stage, children learn to consider several roles at the same time and how those roles interact with each other. They learn to understand interactions involving different people with a variety of purposes. For example, a child at this is likely to be aware of the different responsibilities of people in a restaurant who together make for a smooth dining experience (someone seats you, another takes your order, someone else cooks the food, while yet another clears away dirty dishes).

Finally, children develop, understand, and learn the idea of the generalized other, the common behavioral expectations of general society. By this stage of development, an individual is able to imagine how he or she is viewed by one or many others—and thus, from a sociological perspective, to have a “self” (Mead 1934; Mead 1964).

Moral development is an important part of the socialization process. The term refers to the way people learn what society considered to be “good” and “bad,” which is important for a smoothly functioning society. Moral development prevents people from acting on unchecked urges, instead considering what is right for society and good for others. Lawrence Kohlberg (1927–1987) was interested in how people learn to decide what is right and what is wrong. To understand this topic, he developed a theory of moral development that includes three levels: preconventional, conventional, and postconventional.

In the preconventional stage, young children, who lack a higher level of cognitive ability, experience the world around them only through their senses. It isn’t until the teen years that the conventional theory develops, when youngsters become increasingly aware of others’ feelings and take those into consideration when determining what’s “good” and “bad. ” The final stage, called postconventional, is when people begin to think of morality in abstract terms, such as Americans believing that everyone has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. At this stage, people also recognize that legality and morality do not always match up evenly (Kohlberg 1981). When hundreds of thousands of Egyptians turned out in 2011 to protest government corruption, they were using postconventional morality. They understood that although their government was legal, it was not morally correct.

Another sociologist, Carol Gilligan (1936–), recognized that Kohlberg’s theory might show gender bias since his research was only conducted on male subjects. Would females study subjects have responded differently? Would a female social scientist notice different patterns when analyzing the research? To answer the first question, she set out to study differences between how boys and girls developed morality. Gilligan’s research demonstrated that boys and girls do, in fact, have different understandings of morality. Boys tend to have a justice perspective, placing emphasis on rules and laws. Girls, on the other hand, have a care and responsibility perspective; they consider people’s reasons behind behavior that seems morally wrong.

Gilligan also recognized that Kohlberg’s theory rested on the assumption that the justice perspective was the right, or better, perspective. Gilligan, in contrast, theorized that neither perspective was “better”: the two norms of justice served different purposes. Ultimately, she explained that boys are socialized for a work environment where rules make operations run smoothly, while girls are socialized for a home environment where flexibility allows for harmony in caretaking and nurturing (Gilligan 1982; Gilligan 1990).

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Accepting Political Legitimacy: In the 2000 election, most Americans quickly accepted the legitimacy of the Supreme Court’s decision. Teaching people to accept the “rules of the game,” as in this situation, is an important function of political socialization.

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Latin Kings Socialization: Political socialization does not always mean people are being socialized to accept mainstream political views. The gang “The Latin Kings” (insignia shown) socializes members to violence.

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Teaching Younger Generations: Political socialization involves one generation passing on political values and norms to the next generation.

From Political Values to Ideology

Core American political values general fall in line with one of three political ideologies: liberalism, conservatism, or moderate.

Learning Objectives

Differentiate between the political ideologies of liberals, conservatives, and moderates and discuss how they relate to American political values

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Political values are shared convictions about what is important in a society. Individualism and egalitarianism tend to be the two predominant political values in the United States.
  • Some of the most important political values in the United States emphasize individual effort, the importance of the rule of law, patriotism, political tolerance, and an acceptance of capitalist economic values.
  • While core political values exist, not all Americans agree on the scope and purpose of government, and consequently, not all Americans believe in the same political ideology.
  • Political ideologies describe the scope and purpose of government. Conservatives believe in limited government intervention in the affairs of citizens, whereas liberalism believes in more government intervention, and moderates fall somewhere in between.

Key Terms

  • political ideology: A political ideology is a certain ethical set of ideals that explains how society should work, and offers some political and cultural blueprint for a certain social order. It focuses on type of government and economy.
  • political tolerance: A fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, practices, race, religion, nationality, etc., differ from one’s own.
  • rule of law: The doctrine that no individual is above the law and that everyone must answer to it.

What Are American Political Values?

Values represent a society’s shared convictions about what is just and good. Most often, Americans claim to be committed to the core values of individualism and egalitarianism. Core American political values are vested in what is often called the American creed. The creed, which was composed by New York State Commissioner of Education Henry Sterling Chapin in 1918, refers to the belief that the United States government is “by the people, for the people, whose just powers are derived from the consent of the governed. ” The nation consists of sovereign states united as “a perfect Union” based on “the principles of freedom, equality, justice, and humanity. ”

American exceptionalism is the view that America’s successful development as a nation has contributed to its special place in the world. It is the conviction that the country’s vast frontier has offered boundless and equal opportunities for individuals to achieve their goals. Americans feel strongly that their nation is destined to serve as an example to other countries. They believe that the political and economic systems that have evolved in this country are perfectly suited in principle to permit both individualism and egalitarianism.

Additionally, the American creed also includes patriotism: the love of one’s country and respect for its symbols and principles. The events of 9/11 ignited Americans’ patriotic values, resulting in many public displays of support for the country, its democratic form of government, and authority figures in public-service jobs, such as police and firefighters.

Another core American value is political tolerance, the willingness to allow groups with different ideologies to exercise their constitutionally guaranteed freedoms, such as free speech. While many people strongly support the ideal of tolerance, they often are unwilling to extend political freedoms to groups they dislike. People acknowledge the constitutional right of racist groups, such as skinheads, to demonstrate in public, but will go to great lengths to prevent them from doing so. Democratic political values are among the cornerstones of the American creed.

Americans believe in the rule of law which explains the idea that government is based on a body of law, agreed on by the governed, and is applied equally and justly. The Constitution is the foundation for the rule of law. The American creed also encompasses the public’s high degree of respect for the American system of government and the structure of its political institutions.

Capitalist economic values are also a part of American values. Capitalist economic systems emphasize the need for a free-enterprise system that allows for open business competition, private ownership of property, and limited government intervention in business affairs. Underlying these capitalist values is the belief that, through hard work and perseverance, anyone can be financially successful. The emphasis on the lone, powerful person implies a distrust of collective action and of power structures such as big government, big business, or big labor. The public is leery of a few large companies having too much concentrated power. The emergence of the Tea Party, a visible grassroots conservative movement that gained momentum during the 2010 midterm elections, illustrates how some Americans become mobilized in opposition to the “tax and spend” policies of big government.

Translating Political Values into Political Ideologies

While there are various components to fundamental American political values, not all Americans agree on which exactly the most important values should be. People believe that, when making policies, certain values should be emphasized and others deemphasized. People then choose a political ideology that most closely matches their values. These ideologies capture what they believe the scope and purpose of government should be, as well as the balance between individual freedom and collective equality.

Generally, peoples’ values about the scope and purpose of government can be translated into three main political ideologies: liberals, conservatives, and moderates. People who value change and a greater emphasis on collective equality tend to relate to the ideology of liberalism. Liberals support more government intervention to promote economic equality, and believe the government should have more of a say in peoples’ lives.

Contrastingly, people who value tradition and the status quo will relate more to conservatism. Conservatives favor less government intervention (like the Tea Party), and more individual freedom in economic activities (which can subsequently mean a belief in less collective equality). Moderates hold an ideology somewhere in between liberalism and conservatism.

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Political Ideology Trends: As this chart illustrates, not all Americans agree on which should be the predominant political values and ideologies. Also in this chart, it is evident that people align with different ideologies at different points in time.

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Equal Justice under Law: The inscription on the front of the United States Supreme Court building reads, “equal justice under law. ” This phrase emphasizes the centrality of the rule of law in American political values.

Socioeconomic and Racial Demographics

Political socialization experiences differ depending on group membership, such as socioeconomic status, gender, or geography.

Learning Objectives

Describe the ways in which race, gender, socioeconomic status, and geographical region influence how people are politically socialized.

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Different groups are socialized to more or less participation, and to different types of participation. People are socialized to these different political values based on where they live, their gender, their race or ethnicity, or their socioeconomic status.
  • Wealthier and more highly educated people are exposed to more avenues for political socialization; in particular, since schools are a key agent of political socialization, highly educated people tend to be very active in politics.
  • Political socialization also differs depending on where people live. For example, typically people are conservative in the South and Midwest, and align against the more liberal east and west coasts. Urban voters tend to be socialized to be more liberal, and rural voters more conservative.
  • Typically, women’s political learning and formation of political values has been different than men’s. Traits associated with political leadership have more often been attributed as “male” values, leading to fewer women in visible political leadership roles.

Key Terms

  • socioeconomic status: Socioeconomic status (SES) is a combined economic and sociological measurement of a person’s work experience and of an individual’s or family’s economic and social position in relation to others, based on income, education, and occupation.
  • political socialization: The “developmental processes by which children and adolescents acquire political cognition, attitudes, and behaviors. ” It refers to a learning process by which political norms and behavior are transmitted from one generation to another.
  • red-state blue-state divide: The Red State-Blue State Divide is a geographical division of the United States into states in which the majority of people voted for the Republican candidate and states in which the majority voted for the Democratic candidate.

Group Differences in Political Socialization

Political learning and socialization experiences can differ vastly for people depending on the groups with which they associate, such as those based on gender and racial and ethnic background. Certain groups are socialized to a more active role in politics, while others are marginalized.

Political Socialization and Socioeconomic Status

Socioeconomic status is determined by people’s levels of education, income, and occupation. Wealthier and more highly educated people tend to have more opportunities to be socialized to political values. Consequently, they tend to have more defined political opinions, vote more often, participate more in political activities, and donate more money to causes than poorer or less educated people. Oftentimes, they have been raised by parents who are of the same socioeconomic status, who socialize them to believe in the importance of political participation.

Education has the strongest impact on participation, as it socializes people to the political system. Schools are important agents for political socialization, and as a result, educated people develop the skills that allow them to follow and understand events through the mass media. They are likely to form opinions about political issues and engage in discussions. Schools also prepare people to deal with the bureaucratic aspects of participation, such as registering to vote or organizing a petition drive.

Political Socialization and Race

People are attracted to groups with similar views. Generally, groups who have experienced historical discrimination or poverty are attracted to more liberal social doctrine. African Americans overwhelmingly identify with the Democratic party, and Latinos also identify with the Democratic party. Asian Americans are more likely to identify with the Republican party. Racial and ethnic groups, like other groups, socialize the members of the group towards different values in politics.

Black and white Americans are about equal in how much time and effort they devote to activities other than voting. However, they differ in the types of activities in which they have been socialized to participate in. Whites are more likely to contact public officials and join political organizations. Black citizens are active in election campaigns and social movements. Latinos tend to participate in other forms of political activity with less frequency than either white or black citizens. Cultural factors contribute to the lower levels of Asian American and Pacific Islander voting; for example, some are recent immigrants who still maintain strong ties to their ethnic culture. These groups have not experienced as much political socialization as other groups.

Political Socialization and Geographical Region

People are also socialized to accept different political values, ideologies, and parties based on the region of the country in which they grew up or currently live. For example, the southern United States is characterized as more conservative, against organized labor, and typically having less voter turnout. The conservative, agrarian midwestern states tend to vote with these Southern states, in alliance against the more liberal, urban voters on the east and west coasts.

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Political Values by Geographic Region: This map of the different party strength in the 2004 Presidential Election (red states voted Republican and blue states voted Democrat) demonstrates the relationship between political socialization and geography.

This red-state blue-state divide can be more accurately explained by looking at urban and rural voting. People who live in large cities tend to vote Democratic, while rural Americans are more likely to vote Republican. County-by-county and district-by-district maps reveal that the “true” nature of geographical division, ideologically, is between urban areas/inner suburbs and suburbs/rural areas. For example, in the 2008 elections, even in “solidly blue” states, the majority of voters in most rural counties voted for Republican John McCain, with some exceptions. In “solidly red” states, a majority of voters in most urban counties voted for Democrat Barack Obama. An even more detailed precinct-by-precinct breakdown demonstrates that in many cases, large cities voted for Obama, but their suburbs were divided.

Political Socialization and Gender

There are significant differences in the way that males and females are socialized to politics. Historically, men have occupied a more central position in American political culture than women. This tradition was institutionalized at the time of the founding, when women did not receive the right to vote in the Constitution. While strides have been made over the past century to achieve political equality between the sexes, differences in sex-role socialization still exist. Traits associated with political leadership, such as being powerful and showing authority, are more often associated with males than females. Girls have fewer opportunities to observe women taking political action, especially as few females hold the highly visible positions, such as member of Congress and cabinet secretary, that are covered by mass media. This is starting to change as women such as Madeleine Albright and now Hillary Clinton attract media attention in their roles as secretary of state or as Nancy Pelosi did as Speaker of the House of Representatives. Despite these developments, women are still socialized to supporting political roles, such as volunteers in political campaigns, rather than leading roles, such as higher-level elected officials. The result is that fewer women than men seek careers in public office beyond the local level.

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Hillary Rodham Clinton: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is one of an increasing number of women who has achieved a highly visible political leadership role.

Family, Peers, Church, and School

People that surround a child during his or her childhood are crucial to the child’s development of political values and voting behaviors.

Learning Objectives

Locate the differences across the factors of political socialization

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The family is a powerful agent of political socialization, as the hierarchical structure of the family and the child’s desire to please his or her parents encourage conformity to the parents’ political values. In particular, children will often identify with the parents’ political party.
  • Schools are a crucial agent of political socialization, as they teach the knowledge necessary for political participation. Students learn civics, history, geography, and how the political system works.
  • US schools socialize students to American values, such as cooperation, fair competition, and respect for authorities. Schools also provide opportunities for students to learn national pride and citizenship (for example, through rituals like saying the Pledge of Allegiance).
  • Peer groups can be influential to political socialization, as young people often adopt the same patterns of behaviors and beliefs as the groups they associate with.
  • Churches socialize people to accept certain political values, and also teach values such as respect for authority.

Key Terms

  • latent: Existing or present, but concealed.
  • peers: A group of people who are linked by common interests, equal social position, and similar age.
  • agent: An active power or cause; that which has the power to produce an effect.

Family

Family is the first agent of socialization. Mothers and fathers, siblings and grandparents, plus members of an extended family, all teach a child what he or she needs to know. For example, they show the child how to use objects (such as clothes, computers, eating utensils, books, bikes); how to relate to others (some as “family,” others as “friends,” still others as “strangers” or “teachers” or “neighbors”); and how the world works (what is “real” and what is “imagined”). As you are aware, either from your own experience as a child or your role in helping to raise one, socialization involves teaching and learning about an unending array of objects and ideas.

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Family Participation in Politics: Members of the Kennedy family have been prominently involved in politics for over a century, illustrating how the desire to participate in politics can be passed on generationally. Family is an important agent of political socialization.

School

Most American children spend about seven hours a day, 180 days a year, in school, which makes it hard to deny the importance school has on their socialization (U.S. Department of Education 2004). Students are not only in school to study math, reading, science, and other subjects—the manifest function of this system. Schools also serve a latent function in society by socializing children into behaviors like teamwork, following a schedule, and using textbooks.School and classroom rituals, led by teachers serving as role models and leaders, regularly reinforce what society expects from children. Sociologists describe this aspect of schools as the hidden curriculum, the informal teaching done by schools.

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Importance of Peer Groups: Spending time with peers, such as participating in organized sports, can be an important source of political socialization for young adults.

Peer Group

A peer group is made up of people who are similar in age and social status and who share interests. Peer group socialization begins in the earliest years, such as when kids on a playground teach younger children the norms about taking turns or the rules of a game or how to shoot a basket. As children grow into teenagers, this process continues. Peer groups are important to adolescents in a new way, as they begin to develop an identity separate from their parents and exert independence. Additionally, peer groups provide their own opportunities for socialization since kids usually engage in different types of activities with their peers than they do with their families. Peer groups provide adolescents’ first major socialization experience outside the realm of their families. Interestingly, studies have shown that although friendships rank high in adolescents’ priorities, this is balanced by parental influence.

Religion and Church

While some religions may tend toward being an informal institution, this section focuses on practices related to formal institutions. Religion is an important avenue of socialization for many people. The United States is full of synagogues, temples, churches, mosques, and similar religious communities where people gather to worship and learn. Like other institutions, these places teach participants how to interact with the religion’s material culture (like a mezuzah, a prayer rug, or a communion wafer). For some people, important ceremonies related to family structure—like marriage and birth—are connected to religious celebrations. Many of these institutions uphold gender norms and contribute to their enforcement through socialization. From ceremonial rites of passage that reinforce the family unit, to power dynamics which reinforce gender roles, religion fosters a shared set of socialized values that are passed on through society.

The Mass Media

Media can have an important effect on public opinion in several ways.

Learning Objectives

Explain the different ways that the mass media forms public opinion

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Mass media frame the details of the story.
  • Mass media communicate the social desirability of certain ideas.
  • Mass media sets the news agenda, which shapes the public’s views on what is newsworthy and important.
  • Increasing scandal coverage, as well as profit-motivated sensationalist media coverage, has resulted in young people holding more negative, distrustful views of government than previous generations.

Key Terms

  • mass media: The mass media are media technologies like broadcast media and print media that are designed to reach a large audience by mass communication.
  • framing: the construction and presentation of a fact or issue “framed” from a particular perspective

Mass media effects on public opinion

Media can have an important effect on public opinion in several ways.

  1. Setting the news agenda, which shapes the public’s views on what is newsworthy and important
  2. Framing the details of a story
  3. Communicating the social desirability of certain kinds of ideas

The formation of public opinion starts with agenda setting by major media outlets throughout the world. This agenda setting dictates what is newsworthy and how and when it will be reported. The media agenda is set by a variety of different environmental and newswork factors that determines which stories will be newsworthy.

Another key component in the formation of public opinion is framing. Framing is when a story or piece of news is portrayed in a particular way and is meant to sway the consumers attitude one way or the other. Most political issues are heavily framed in order to persuade voters to vote for a particular candidate. For example, if Candidate X once voted on a bill that raised income taxes on the middle class, a framing headline would read “Candidate X Doesn’t Care About the Middle Class”. This puts Candidate X in a negative frame to the news reader.

Social desirability is another key component to the formation of public opinion. Social desirability is the idea that people in general will form their opinions based on what they believe is the popular opinion. Based on media agenda setting and media framing, most often a particular opinion gets repeated throughout various news mediums and social networking sites, until it creates a false vision where the perceived truth is actually very far away from the actual truth.

Public opinion can be influenced by public relations and the political media. Additionally, mass media utilizes a wide variety of advertising techniques to get their message out and change the minds of people. Since the 1950s, television has been the main medium for molding public opinion, though the internet is becoming increasingly important in this realm.

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News Media: Increasing exposure to news media has both a positive and negative effects on the formation of political values in young people.

Political Leaders and Opinion Makers

An opinion leader is an active media user who interprets the meaning of media messages for those less informed about political events.

Learning Objectives

Compare and contrast monomorphic and polymorphic opinion leadership

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Opinion leaders interpret and disseminate political messages for the average person, to help him or her understand complex political issues.
  • Opinion leaders sometimes have more influence than the media, primarily because opinion leaders are seen as trustworthy and non-purposive. People are more inclined to accept a political message from someone they know, rather than the media, who they feel may be attempting to manipulate them.
  • Political pundits, public officials, celebrities, and media personalities can all serve as opinion leaders.
  • Some argue that the opinion of the elites in society should matter the most. The average American should not and does not have much say in public opinion; rather, elite opinion counts the most.

Key Terms

  • opinion leader: The agent who is an active media user and who interprets the meaning of media messages or content for lower-end media users. Typically the opinion leader is held in high esteem by those who accept his or her opinions.
  • pundit: A self-professed expert in a particular field, especially as called upon to provide comments or opinions in the media; a commentator, a critic.

Opinion Leaders

Opinion leadership is a concept that arises out of the theory of two-step flow of communication propounded by Paul Lazarsfeld and Elihu Katz Significant developers of the theory have been Robert K. Merton, C. Wright Mills and Bernard Berelson. This theory is one of several models that try to explain the diffusion of innovations, ideas, or commercial products.

The opinion leader is the agent who is an active media user and who interprets the meaning of media messages or content for lower-end media users. Typically the opinion leader is held in high esteem by those who accept his or her opinions. Merton distinguishes two types of opinion leadership: monomorphic and polymorphic.

Typically, opinion leadership is viewed as a monomorphic, domain-specific measure of individual differences, that is, a person that is an opinion leader in one field may be a follower in another field. An example of a monomorphic opinion leader in the field of computer technology, might be a neighborhood computer service technician. The technician has access to far more information on this topic than the average consumer and has the requisite background to understand the information, though the same person might be a follower at another field (for example sports) and ask others for advice. In contrast, polymorphic opinion leaders are able to influence others in a broad range of domains. Variants of polymorphic opinion leadership include market mavenism, personality strength and generalized opinion leadership. So far, there is little consensus as to the degree these concept operationalize the same or simply related constructs.

What makes an opinion leader?

One or more of these factors make noteworthy opinion leaders:

  • expression of values
  • professional competence
  • nature of social network.

Opinion leaders are individuals who obtain more media coverage than others and are especially educated on a certain issue. They seek the acceptance of others and are especially motivated to enhance their social status. In the jargon of public relations, they are called thought leaders.

Example

In a strategic attempt to engage the public in environmental issues and his nonprofit, The Climate Project, Al Gore utilized the concept of opinion leaders. Gore found opinion leaders by recruiting individuals who were educated on environmental issues and saw themselves as influential in their community and amongst their friends and family. From there, he trained the opinion leaders on the information he wanted them to spread and enabled them to influence their communities. By using opinion leaders, Gore was able to educate and influence many Americans to take notice of climate change and change their actions.

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Fox News: News stations, such as Fox News, provide opportunities for viewers to hear from opinion leaders.

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Opinion Leaders: Opinion leaders, such as Stephen Colbert, often shape public opinion. People are inclined to follow opinion leaders because of their knowledge and experience.

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Celebrities as Opinion Leaders: George Clooney is an example of a celebrity opinion leader. His advocacy for issues in Africa and the Sudan has made him an opinion leader for many people.

Major Life and Political Events

Political socialization takes place throughout the life cycle, but major life or political events can also impact political values.

Learning Objectives

Explain how parents, social groups and major life events are sources for political socialization

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The life cycle is a key component to political socialization: throughout time, people grow more attached and socialized to particular political values.
  • Certain events during a person’s life, such as buying a home or having children, can impact the formation of political values.
  • When a generation experiences a major political event together, such as the Great Depression, a political generation can emerge. This political generation will have political values distinct from other political generations.
  • The primary political generations in American politics include the Depression Era/GI generation, the silent generation, the baby boom generation, generation X, and the millennial generation/generation Y.
  • Conflict usually exists between the younger and older political generations, as the younger generations are more open to new and changing ideas.

Key Terms

  • political generation: A group of individuals, similar in age, who share a general set of political socialization experiences.
  • life cycle: The developmental history of an individual or group in society; the course of stages through which a human passes from birth until death.

Sources of Political Socialization

Parents appear to be a primary source of political socialization and partisanship. Much of the theoretical basis for this hypothesis emerged from the fields of child psychology and social learning, which studied the ways in which children are socialized and values inculcated in them. Studies of political partisanship have found that partisanship is strongest when both parents have the same political loyalties, these loyalties are strong, both parents have similarly strong party loyalties, and parental partisanship accords with socio-economic status (for example, the wealthy are Republicans or the poor are Labour supporters).

Social groups are another source of partisanship. Friends, relatives, and neighbors often have the same partisan loyalties and strengths as one’s parents. The more homogeneous the social group, the more likely the individual will be to develop strong partisan loyalties. When social group homogeneousness is low, the individual is likely to be less strongly socialized into partisan politics and more likely to seek a different party loyalty (whether by disengaging from partisanship or switching partisan loyalties).

Political socialization takes place throughout the course of a person’s life. However, certain major life and political events can interrupt the normal progression of political socialization, causing a person to change his or her opinion and accept other political values and ideologies.

Initially, studies indicated that the most important factor in forming political values was the life cycle. That is, a person’s attachment to a specific political ideology naturally grew stronger over time, as weak socialization became strong and strong socialization became stronger. Additionally, theorists suggested that older voters favored certain policy preferences (such as strong government pensions and old-age health insurance) which led them to favor one party over another.

Impact of Major Life Events

Later studies have shown that the initial strong effect of the life cycle variable was mitigated by generational effects. Party identification seemed strongly affected by certain formative generational events, such as the Civil War, the Great Depression or the social upheaval of the 1960s. Several studies concluded that generational effects (major life events) were distinct from life cycle effects, and that both were significant factors in creating (or not creating) partisanship.

Conceding that major “shocks” such as the Great Depression could realign or dealign partisanship, some scholars reasoned that a series of smaller shocks over time could also dramatically influence the direction and strength of partisanship. Many scholars became convinced that partisanship was not bedrock, but shifting sand. Important childhood events, such as becoming aware of a presidential campaign, as well as events in adulthood (such as recessions, war, or shifting racial policies) could also affect one’s level of partisanship.

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September 11, 2001: Major historical or political events, such as September 11th, can impact the political socialization and the formation of political values for an entire generation.

Political Knowledge

Political knowledge, in addition to political socialization and major events, impact the formation of people’s political values and opinions.

Learning Objectives

Discuss the relationship between political knowledge and public opinion

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • While agents of socialization like family, peers, church, and school are important in developing political values, how much people know, factually, about their political system and leaders is also important in the formation of political values.
  • The formation of public opinion assumes that Americans are knowledgable enough to make a sound judgement; however, statistics indicate many Americans are ignorant on basic facets of American political life.
  • Some argue that Americans are not well-informed about politics as a result of rational ignorance, where it is believed that the costs of gaining enough political knowledge to be informed outweighs the benefits.

Key Terms

  • political socialization: The “developmental processes by which children and adolescents acquire political cognition, attitudes, and behaviors.” It refers to a learning process by which political norms and behavior are transmitted from one generation to another.
  • rational ignorance: The belief that the cost of educating oneself on an issue exceeds the potential benefit that the knowledge would provide.

Forming Opinions through Knowledge

While it is known that agents of political socialization (such as family, peers, church, and school) and major life and political events impact political values and public opinion, some argue that political knowledge plays a large role as well.

In this view, public opinion is formed and shaped when people investigate and research politics, and are consequently able to form their own opinions. How much people know about their government and their leaders, where they receive their information, the quality and impartiality of the sources they used, all impact the formation of their political values and opinions.

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Political Knowledge: Some people are that political values are formed as a result of political knowledge. Researching two political candidates, as illustrated in this flyer, help increase political knowledge.

Forming Opinions without Knowledge

The formation of public opinion assumes that Americans know enough about political issues to shape opinions based on political knowledge. However, certain statistics demonstrate that many Americans lack this basic knowledge about politics. Many people cannot identify important political figures or are misinformed about important political issues, such as how much foreign aid the United States donates or what is actually written in the Constitution.

This type of voter ignorance is due to the fact that, oftentimes, the cost of investigating political issues and forming opinions outweighs the benefits. This theory, called “rational ignorance,” effects the quality of decisions made by large numbers of people and can be seen in general elections, where the probability of any one vote changing the outcome is very small.