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The Transmission of Political Values from Parent to Child*

  • M. Kent Jennings (a1) and Richard G. Niemi (a2)
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In understanding the political development of the pre-adult one of the central questions hinges on the relative and differentiated contributions of various socializing agents. The question undoubtedly proves more difficult as one traverses a range of polities from those where life and learning are almost completely wrapped up in the immediate and extended family to those which are highly complex social organisms and in which the socialization agents are extremely varied. To gain some purchase on the role of one socializing agent in our own complex society, this paper will take up the specific question of the transmission of certain values from parent to child as observed in late adolescence. After noting parent-child relationships for a variety of political values, attention will be turned to some aspects of family structure which conceivably affect the transmission flows.

I. Assessing the Family's Impact: “Foremost among agencies of socialization into politics is the family.” So begins Herbert Hyman's discussion of the sources of political learning.1 Hyman explicitly recognized the importance of other agents, but he was neither the first nor the last observer to stress the preeminent position of the family. This viewpoint relies heavily on both the direct and indirect role of the family in shaping the basic orientations of offspring. Whether the child is conscious or unaware of the impact, whether the process is role-modelling or overt transmission, whether the values are political and directly usable or “nonpolitical” but transferable, and whether what is passed on lies in the cognitive or affective realm, it has been argued that the family is of paramount importance.

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Revised version of a paper delivered at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, New York, September, 1966. Financial support for the study reported here comes from The Danforth Foundation and the National Science Foundation. We wish to acknowledge the assistance of Michael Traugott in the preparation of this paper.

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1 Hyman, Herbert, Political Socialization (New York: Free Press of Glencoe, 1959), p. 69.

2 Most of these few studies, cited by Hyman, op. cit., pp. 70–71, are based on extremely limited samples and nearly all took place between 1930–1950.

3 Hess, Robert D. and Torney, Judith V., The Development of Basic Attitudes and Values Toward Government and Citizenship During the Elementary School Years, Part I (Cooperative Research Project No. 1078, U.S. Office of Education, 1965), pp. 193, 200.

4 Ibid., p. 191.

5 Ibid., p. 192.

6 Illustrative of this argument is Pinner's, Frank A. careful rendering in “Parental Overproteotion and Political Distrust,” The Annals, 361 (September, 1965), 5870. See, in the same issue, Greenstein, Fred I., “Personality and Political Socialization: The Theories of Authoritarian and Democratic Character,” pp. 8195.

7 In addition to the Hess and Torney report, evidence for this is supplied by, inter alios, Greenstein, Fred I., Children and Politics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965); and Easton, David and Dennis, Jack, “The Child's Image of Government,” The Annals, 361 (September, 1965), 4057.

8 Of the original ninety-eight schools, drawn with a probability proportionate to their size, eighty-five (87%) agreed to participate; matched substitutes for the refusals resulted in a final total of ninety-seven out of 111 contacted altogether (87%).

9 Additional interviews were conducted with 317 of the students' most relevant social studies teachers and with the school principals. Some 21,000 paper-pencil questionnaires were administered to all members of the senior class in 85 percent of the sample schools.

10 In any event, initial controls on parent (as well as student) sex suggest that parent-student agreement rates on the values examined here differ little among parent-student sex combinations. This will be discussed in more detail below.

11 The alternative to half-weighting these pairs is to subselect among those cases where both mother and father were interviewed. Half weighting tends to reduce the sampling variability because it utilizes more data cases.

12 It proved impossible to obtain accurate, recent figures on 12th grade enrollment throughout the country. Working with the data available and extrapolating as necessary, a sampling frame was constructed so that schools would be drawn with a probability proportionate to the size of the senior class. After entry was obtained into the sample schools and precise figures on enrollments gathered, differential weights were applied to correct for the inequalities in selection probabilities occasioned by the original imprecise information. The average weight equals 1.2.

13 Hyman, op. cit., p. 72, and n. 6, p. 89. See also Lane, Robert E., “Fathers and Sons: Foundations of Political Belief,” American Sociological Review, 24 (August, 1959), 502511 ; Maccoby, Eleanor E., Matthews, Richard E., and Morton, Anton S., “Youth and Political Change,” Public Opinion Quarterly, 18 (Spring, 1954), 2339 ; Middleton, Russell and Putney, Snell, “Political Expression of Adolescent Rebellion,” American Journal of Sociology, 68 (March, 1963), 527535 ; and Somers, Robert H., “The Mainsprings of the Rebellion: A Survey of Berkeley Students in November, 1964,” in Lipset, Seymour Martin and Wolin, Sheldon S. (eds.), The Berkeley Student Revolt (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1965), p. 547.

14 Douvan, Elizabeth and Gold, Martin, “Modal Patterns in American Adolescence,” in Lois, and Hoffman, Martin (eds.), Review of Child Development Research (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1966), Vol. II, p. 485.

15 For an analysis of students' and parents' knowledge of each other's political attitudes and behavior, see Niemi, Richard G., “A Methodological Study of Political Socialization in the Family” (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of Michigan, 1967).

16 This figure is based on parent-student pairs in which both respondents have a party identification; eliminated are the 2 percent of the pairs in which one or both respondents are apolitical or undecided. The product-moment correlation for these data is .59. The standard SRC party identification questions were used: see Campbell, Angus, Converse, Philip E., Miller, Warren E., and Stokes, Donald E., The American Voter (New York: Wiley, 1960), Ch. 6.

17 This is suggested by an analysis of different age groups among the active electorate: see Ibid., pp. 161ff. For evidence that the depth of adult attachment to party is not necessarily uniform across electoral systems see Jennings, M. Kent and Niemi, Riehard G., “Party Identification at Multiple Levels of Government,” American Journal of Sociology, 72 (July, 1966), 86101.

18 Converse, Philip E., “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics,” in Apter, David E. (ed.), Ideology and Discontent (New York: Free Press of Glencoe, 1964), pp. 206261. The following section borrows from Converse's discussion. Agger, Robert E. takes a somewhat different view of instabilities in “Panel Studies of Comparative Community Political Decision-Making,” in Jennings, M. Kent and Zeigler, L. Harmon (eds.), The Electoral Process (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall 1966), pp. 265289.

19 Sizeable proportions of both parents and students elected to state a middle or “depends” response, particularly on the first question. Such responses occupy a middle position in our calculation of the rank order correlations. On the first issue 10 percent of the pairs were dropped because either the parent or child opted out on the initial screen; the corresponding figure for the second issue is 19 percent.

20 McClosky, Herbert, “Consensus and Ideology in American Politics,” this Review, 58 (June, 1964), 361382 ; and Prothro, James W. and Grigg, Charles W., “Fundamental Principles of Democracy: Bases of Agreement and Disagreement,” Journal of Politics, 22 (May, 1960), 276294.

21 Converse, op. cit.

22 Agger, Robert E., Goldstein, Marshall N., and Pearl, Stanley A., “Political Cynicism: Measurement and Meaning,” Journal of Politics, 23 (August, 1961), p. 490 ; and Litt, Edgar, “Political Cynicism and Political Futility,” Journal of Politics, 25 (May, 1963), 312323.

23 Greenstein, op. cit, Ch. 3; Hess, Robert D. and Easton, David, “The Child's Changing Image of the President,” Public Opinion Quarterly, 24 (Winter, 1960), 632644 ; and Hess and Torney, op. cit., pp. 73ff.

24 The items are as follows:

1) Do you think that quite a few of the people running the government are a little crooked, not very many are, or do you think hardly any of them are?

2) Do you think that people in the government waste a lot of the money we pay in taxes, waste some of it, or don't waste very much of it?

3) How much of the time do you think you can trust the government in Washington to do what is right—just about always, most of the time, or only some of the time?

4) Do you feel that almost all of the people running the government are smart people who usually know what they are doing, or do you think that quite a few of them don't seem to know what they are doing?

5) Would you say that the government is pretty much run by a few big interests looking out for themselves or that it is run for the benefit of all the people?

25 These are old charges but apparently still true. After a survey of the literature on the subject and on the basis of a subjective analysis of leading government textbooks in high schools, Massialas, Byron G. reaches similar conclusions: see his “American Government: ‘We are the Greatest’,” in Cox, C. Benjamin and Massialas, Byron G. (eds.), Social Studies in the United States: A Critical Appraisal (New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World, Inc., 1967), pp. 167195.

26 A description of this operation and some results are given in Jennings, M. Kent, “Pre-Adult Orientations to Multiple Systems of Government,” Midwest Journal of Political Science, XI (August, 1967), 291317. The underlying theory and technique are found in Coombs, Clyde, A Theory of Data (New York: Wiley, 1964), esp. Ch. 5.

27 This is discussed in more detail in Jennings, op. cit.

28 To compare directly the amount of correspondence on interpretation of the Bible with church membership information, which is nominal-level data, we used the contingency coefficient. Grouping parent and student church affiliations into nine general categories, the coefficient is .88, compared to .34 for the Bible question.

29 A more parsimonious method is to develop agreement indexes and to relate the control variables to these indexes. This results in a single statistic and contingency table for each control variable rather than one for each category of the control variable. Experience with both methods indicates that similar conclusions emerge, but retaining the full matrices preserves somewhat better the effects of each category of the control variable.

30 See, e.g., Bowerman, Charles E. and Elder, Glen H., “Adolescent Perception of Family Power Structure,” American Sociological Review, 29 (August, 1964), 551567 ; Devereux, E. C., Bronfenbrenner, Urie, and Suci, G. J., “Patterns of Parent Behavior in the United States of America and the Federal Republic of Germany: A Cross-National Comparison,” International Social Science Journal, 14 (UNESCO, 1963), 120 ; and Rosenberg, Morris, Society and the Adolescent Self-image (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), Ch. 3.

31 A discussion of these dimensions is found in Straus, Murray, “Power and Support Structure of the Family in Relation to Socialization,” Journal of Marriage and the Family, 26 (August, 1964), 318326. See also Becker, Wesley C., “Consequences of Different Kinds of Parental Discipline,” in Martin, and Hoffman, Lois (eds.), Review of Child Development (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1964), Vol. 1, pp. 169208 ; Sewell, William H., “Some Recent Developments in Socialization Theory and Research,” The Annals, 349 (September, 1963), 163181 ; Elder, Glen H. Jr., “Parental Power Legitimation and Its Effects on the Adolescent,” Sociometry, 26 (March, 1963), 5065 ; and Douvan and Gold, op. cit.

32 Middleton and Putney, op. cit.

33 Lane, op. cit.; and Maccoby et al., op. cit.

34 Nor was the intensity of parental feelings related in any consistent fashion to the amount of parent-student correspondence.

35 There is a moderate tendency for those children feeling most detached from their parents to exhibit greater fluctuation in agreement with their parents—at various levels of politicization—than is true of those feeling most attached to their parents.

36 At another level, the explanation may be in the lack of validity of students' and parents' reports of family structure. See Niemi, op. cit. Ch. II and pp. 184–185.

* Revised version of a paper delivered at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, New York, September, 1966. Financial support for the study reported here comes from The Danforth Foundation and the National Science Foundation. We wish to acknowledge the assistance of Michael Traugott in the preparation of this paper.

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American Political Science Review
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