Youth Electoral Study (YES) - Report 3: 2. Political Socialisation, Political Learning and the Family

Updated: 20 January 2011

2. Political Socialisation, Political Learning and the Family

2.1 Political Socialisation in the Literature

The aim of this report is to consider what we have learnt from YES about how and what young people learn about politics, voting and enrolling to vote from their families. The influence of the family on political behaviour has a long history as a subject of research. One of the best sources for an overview of this literature is Niemi and Sobieszek (1977), which describes the field of political socialisation. The seminal text that defined this discipline is generally agreed to be Hyman's Political Socialization: A Study in The Psychology of Political Behavior (1959). Others such as Renshon's Handbook of Political Socialization (Renshon 1977) have also been influential.

The foundational argument of political socialisation was the hypothesis that, although 'politics' was an adult activity, attitudes about politics were gained at a very young age. The aim was to understand the stability of Western democracies through an analysis of how democratic and other political norms were transferred through the generations. Political socialisation identified a number of sites for the transmission of political norms, values and attitudes, including schools, the media and, most significantly, the family (Beck and Jennings 1991; Jennings and Niemi 1971; Jennings and Niemi 1968, 1971).

Reflecting its mixed parentage of political science and psychology most studies carried out in the name of 'political socialisation' adopted a rigid quantitative approach based on written closed-question surveys. Particular emphasis was placed on attitudes toward authority, recognition of political persons, understanding of institutions and trust in accepted norms. Most of these studies concerned the political socialisation of children in the USA. Among them, however, was R.W. Connell's The Child's Construction of Politics (Connell, 1971) that aimed at understanding how Australian children learned about and understood politics. Connell's intention was to understand whether political values, including a commitment to conservative politics, could be transmissible through the generations.

But this new political socialisation literature failed to live up to its promise of understanding the complexity of the formation of political attitudes. As early as 1968 studies highlighting 'major problems' in the theory and methodology of political socialisation began to appear (Dennis 1968). For a start, although earlier studies of the transmission of political values from parent to child discovered high degrees of correlation in parent-child values, later studies using different methodologies questioned this. Assumptions made about the passivity of children as subjects within the process of socialisation were also challenged.

By the 1980's studies of political socialisation had all but vanished and researchers turned to a meta-analysis of the objectives and methodology of the discipline. In 1987 Connell was confident in asserting that the discipline had 'failed' (Connell 1987). Yet, even Connell asked, 'what should replace it'? And studies mooting a 'return to political socialisation' continually appear (Dudley and Gitelson 2002; Sears 1990). Clearly there is something about the subject of political socialisation that engages researchers.

Civics and Citizenship Education programmes widely found in the education systems of many Western democracies including Australia, the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom are testimony to a principle that as a normative practice both the family and the school should prepare young people to enter the world as 'active citizens' aware of their rights, duties and able to understand the mechanisms of the state and political institutions. Also accepted is that young people do not emerge as adults as 'blank slates', but as already having some views about politics and democratic participation. At the time that young people in Australia are eligible to enrol to vote (at the age of 17) and required to enrol and vote in any elections (at the age of 18) they already hold some attitudes towards democracy, political views and opinions about the social and political landscape of Australia. This was clearly demonstrated in previous YES reports that showed that many young people have protested and others have positions on what they think about voting as a democratic act (Print, Saha and Edwards 2004; Saha, Print and Edwards 2005).

To this end, in the literatures on education and political science more broadly, the subject of children's and adolescents' learning about politics remains a subject of analysis. Most studies highlight the role played by 'the family' as a site of political learning. The International Education Association (IEA), for example, in its study of civic learning identified the family as a major variable (Torney-Purta et al. 2001). In relation to voting specifically studies also highlight the benefits of positive reinforcement through discussion in the family about politics (Andolina et al. 2003) and through parents taking young children to the polling booth (Meirick and Wackman 2004).

YES reported in Enrolment and Voting (Print, Saha, & Edwards, 2004), that survey respondents identified 'the family' as the most important source of information about voting in elections, followed by the television, newspapers and teachers (See Table 1 in that report). Participants in our focus groups identified the same sources as being important in terms of finding out about politics and voting. Taking into account some of the pitfalls encountered by previous attempts to understand and theorise 'the family', it is therefore important that we explore the family as a source of political learning, information, discussion and knowledge for young Australians.

To summarise, the fundamental problem in research about young people and political learning seems to be how to understand the process of learning about politics without lapsing into determinism. With respect to the family the issue appears to be how to understand the family as an important arena in which young people learn about politics without conceptualising young people as simple products of familial conditioning.

The following discussion of young people and political learning in the family thus considers the young person as an active subject. We do not presume that the young person is a simple product of familial socialisation such that they merely replicate parental perspectives. Nor do we presume that their views are entrenched and static. Rather we consider that we have interviewed subjects at a pivotal period in their career as 'political subjects' and as Australian citizens, the years around which they will gain the citizen's right and duty of the franchise, and this is placed in the context of the primary research problem – why do many of these young people not register to vote?

2.2 Families in Australia: Forms, Characteristics and Resources

The first factor about 'families' that must be considered as part of any effort to understand political learning in the family is the diversity of families themselves. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) notes the diversity of family types in Australia in the twenty-first century (ABS 2003a). Although nuclear families still predominate, they are in decline and other family types where children are present include one-parent families (usually female headed) and families where children live with non-parental adults, such as grandparents, are increasing.

It is important to note that the families of YES participants reflected the diversity discussed by the ABS report mentioned above. In our focus groups we encountered participants who described living in traditional nuclear families, in single parent households and with other (non-parent) family members. A small minority had left the parental home and were living within state or charity provided accommodation.

The ABS also notes the diversity in ethnicity of Australia's population (ABS 2003b). YES participants and their families again reflected this trend. They were ethnically diverse and came from a range of cultural and ethnic backgrounds. We encountered participants whose families were long-established in Australia and others who were first and second generation Australians. Some participants identified themselves as indigenous Australians. Some came from homes where English was not spoken, or was spoken as a second language, and some identified themselves as from another country, despite being born here

In any context where 'learning' is discussed it is also important to discuss the issue of resources. Studies conducted in the United States and also in Great Britain have found that access to resources necessary for political participation are mediated by an individual's socio-economic, ethnic and language speaking position (Sherrod 2003; The Electoral Commission 2005). In the case of young people this access is dependent on their family's access. The diversity of families and of the ancestry of these families in Australia are among factors that may impact on resources of families in terms of knowledge about politics and democracy, the ability to participate in Australia's democratic processes, or the available capacity to assist children in the family in learning about politics and accessing Australia's democratic processes.

2.3 The Family and Gender

The second issue concerning the family and political learning is gender relations within the family. The literature on political socialisation recognised gender differences and dynamics within the family and speculated that these may result in boys being socialised differently from girls, and mothers and fathers playing different, gendered, socialising roles (Jennings and Niemi 1971; Niemi, 1977).

Political sociologists were not alone in highlighting the family as an arena of socialisation or in recognising its gendered dimensions. 'The family' emerged in the same period as an object of study by feminist scholars (Mitchell, 1986; Rowbotham 1983). These scholars saw the traditional nuclear family as a political entity in its own right. Families were considered as arenas where men had a greater degree of power than women and where the gender division of labour saw men with the capacity to earn in the public sphere and women as performing most of the unpaid labour, particularly that relating to the raising of children, in the private sphere.

Also noted was that just as religious, moral, social and political values were learned in the family, so girls and boys also learned gender roles that influenced their behaviour as adult men and women. Just as the person/subject of political socialisation theory was reconceptualised as an active subject, capable of active learning and resistance, rather than being simply a passive subject of socialisation, so the gendered subject of feminist theory also evolved in a similar manner. Further, gender roles have changed and evolved over the last three decades. However, that elements of both gender roles and gender relations still exist in the family is evidenced by a recent Australian report on women, men, work and the family (Sex Discrimination Unit 2005).

To some extent there was an overlap of concerns, although not a common theoretical or methodological base, to studies of political socialisation and to the themes prevalent in the work of feminist scholars theorising the family. Both disciplines recognised that the private sphere of the family (however the family was conceived) had an influence on the public sphere, either in terms of determining the political attitudes and behaviour of its citizens, or structuring the gender roles within it. However the family is discussed, gender relations are inevitably at issue.

2.4 The Gender Gap in Political Participation

A problem addressed in both the political socialisation literature and also by feminist scholars is that of the 'gender gap' that exists in terms of political representation and participation. A recent British study found that the historical propensity for males to outnumber females as voters (voting is voluntary) had largely disappeared (The Electoral Commission 2004). However the YES study, and others, has found evidence of other gender differentials in political life. Most significantly, in most democratic nations, including Australia, men still outnumber women in terms of political party membership and consequently as elected representatives (Miskin and Lumb, 2006).

In reports already published (Print, Saha and Edwards 2004; Saha, Print and Edwards 2005) YES also found evidence of a 'gender gap' amongst youth. To summarise we found that:

  1. Female respondents under 17 were more likely to enrol at 17 than male participants, and female participants 17 years and older were more likely to have enrolled than male participants.
  2. Female respondents were more likely to say that they would enrol and vote even if voting were not compulsory.
  3. Male respondents were more likely to report they had the knowledge to understand political issues, knowledge to understand parties, knowledge to make a decision when voting and knowledge to be able to vote, than did the female respondents.
  4. Male respondents were more likely to say that they could trust people in government, that they thought people in government were honest and that they considered people running the government to be clever, than did the female respondents.
  5. Female respondents were more likely to say they would engage in mild protest than male respondents.
  6. Female respondents were more likely to have engaged in normative forms of protest than male respondents, whereas male respondents were more likely to have engaged in non-normative forms.
  7. Female respondents were more likely to say they would be willing to engage in demonstrations in support of specific social movements than male respondents.

In exploring this gender gap some feminist political theorists have drawn conclusions about political and participatory behaviour from the gender socialisation theories mentioned previously. Another approach considers that males and females had different ways of 'being' citizens, that is, of conceiving of and performing their roles as political subjects within the state. Others have examined the notion of 'citizenship' itself. Some considered the 'ideal citizen' of liberal democratic societies to be male (Pateman 1988). In Australia Vromen has attributed at least some aspects of participation to familial structures, noting that women's lack of participation in some participatory acts is directly related to their roles within families (Vromen 2003). Put simply, domestic work in the private sphere impacts on time available for participation in the political realm of the public sphere.

Thus there is evidence that some aspects of existing 'gender gaps' in political participation may be the result of learning about politics in the (gendered) family. Understanding what happens in the family in terms of teaching and learning about politics and participation may therefore be crucial to understanding some elements of the 'gender gap'. Again, a caveat. This argument should not be considered in a reductionist sense; other elements of gendered social relations may also play differing roles in the creation of this gap. But it is essential to study the family as one source.