Young Voices: How Kids Develop Political Identities (2024-2025)

Background

Fifty years ago, researchers discovered that political socialization helps keep American democracy stable by fostering support for its rules and institutions. They found that knowing about and participating in civic activities leads people to support the basic political system, even if they don’t always agree on specific policies or actions. 

However, in recent times, politically active people are more divided, tending to align strongly with a particular party and holding rigid liberal or conservative views. This division has threatened long-standing norms in American politics. Moreover, teenagers appear to be just as divided as adults, which means this trend of division and instability could continue. 

The study of political socialization is now more important than ever. We need to explore how kids develop their understanding of politics, and how this influences their civic and political identities. When do young people start to have meaningful political beliefs? Why do some kids develop a strong sense of civic duty while others tune politics out? How do they come to identify as Democrats, Republicans and Independents? What factors drive polarization and out-group hatred, and what factors promote cooperation and support for democratic norms? To explore these questions, long-term studies are needed to track the development of political identity over adolescence and into adulthood. 

Project Description

This project team will explore political identify formation by tracking sixth graders from Wake County, North Carolina, and their parents through the 2024 U.S. elections and then across the next six years. 

Team members will describe the political attitudes and identities of youth, exploring the age at which kids form meaningful attitudes and identities, the content of these and the extent to which they change over time. The team will also explore how these attitudes and identities develop by examining the primary social sources of political development, including parental socialization, socioeconomic environment, friendship groups and social networks, formal schooling and exposure to other important social institutions (e.g., religion). Finally, team members will examine the role of individual differences in social identities (e.g., race, class), core values (e.g., for equality) and personality traits (e.g., risk aversion) to provide the most comprehensive portrait of youth politics to date and develop a strong foundation for future research of this type.

The study has five prongs, each of which will be repeated annually until the students are at least 18 years old:

  1. Survey of students: In Fall 2024, team members will survey sixth graders to establish how much children already know about politics and to what extent they have formed political identities, and examine how they are socialized to develop political identities, including what messages and values they receive from their families, schools, religious institutions and peers.
  2. Survey of parents: The parent survey will collect basic demographic information on families and elucidate the political messages they try to impart to their children, the values they teach their children and the other places their children have received political socialization in the past.
  3. Interviews with students: In Spring 2025, team members will interview sixth graders to gain a deeper understanding of their political beliefs, socialization agents and how they make sense of the information they’re receiving. 
  4. Interviews parents: Team members will interview parents to gain a deeper understanding of how they teach their children about politics, if at all.
  5. Observations of students: Team members will observe a selection of sixth grade students as they go about their daily lives. The purpose of these observations will be to learn about how students are socialized into political identities in ways that may be difficult for them and their parents to articulate and may be difficult for the team to anticipate.

Anticipated Outputs

Academic articles and book manuscript; data for future grant proposals

Student Opportunities

Ideally, this project team will include 2 graduate students and 12 undergraduates interested in political socialization and social science research methods, including interviews, surveys and observations.

Students will have the opportunity to learn skills such as how to sample for both survey and interview studies, how to ask questions differently in surveys and interviews, how to probe for more information in interviews, how to write field notes, how to build and maintain rapport with respondents, and how to know when survey data can be generalized to a population. Students will also build soft skills, including research planning and organization, observation, presentation, communication and teamwork. 

Team members will form two subteams working on separate but connected project goals. For all primary tasks, including survey sampling, interviewing and observation (e.g., of class time at school), the two subteams will work in parallel, targeting different halves of the sample. 

In Fall 2024, the team will meet weekly on Thursdays from 3-4 p.m. to check in as a group and then divide into subteams to plan for the week’s data collection activities. Occasionally, there will be skill-building and training sessions with the entire team, such as developing best practices for interviews.

Timing

Fall 2024 – Spring 2025

  • Fall 2024: Begin surveys of children and parents
  • Spring 2025: Conduct survey and interview children and parents; observe children’s daily lives

Crediting

Academic credit available for fall and spring semesters

Vote.

Team Leaders

  • Christopher Johnston, Arts & Sciences-Political Science
  • Jessi Streib, Arts & Sciences-Sociology
  • Stephen Vaisey, Arts & Sciences-Sociology

/graduate Team Members

  • Turgut Keskintürk, Sociology-PHD

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Sunshine Hillygus, Arts & Sciences-Political Science
  • Craig Rawlings, Arts & Sciences-Sociology

/zcommunity Team Members

  • Curtis Bram, University of Texas at Dallas-Department of Political Science