The Role of Images, Symbols and Structures in Shaping Political Opinions

Categories: Politics

Political Socialization and its Agents

Political socialization is the process by which people acquire their political attitudes, beliefs, opinions, and behaviors. This process refers to how citizens are taught political culture and how to interact with the government. The term was coined in 1959 by Herbert H. Hyman in his book Political Socialization: A Study in the Psychology of Political Behavior, in which he describes political socialization from a sociological point of view and analyzes the social structures and factors that contribute to political socialization.

In recent studies, political socialization has become a field of study that attracts large numbers of students in political science and related fields. This may be partially due to the connection between political socialization and democratic systems. Many political scientists feel that building democratic systems are the best way to lead helpful change and development so they are constantly studying how democratic systems work. There is a widespread political science interest in democratic theory and studying political socialization allows political scientists to assess the strengths and weaknesses of democratic norms and behavior patterns in mass publics.

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(D. Schwartz & S. Schwartz, 4). The study of political socialization is essential to developing a deeper understanding of politics and political systems. By observing the methods of socialization and the institutions that take part in this socialization, one can gather information on how citizens interact with government and assess the effectiveness of the political systems at hand.

The goal of political socialization is to frame the public’s perceptions of how power is arranged and how the world around should be organized; those perceptions, in turn, shape and define individuals’ definitions of who they are and how they should behave in the political and economic institutions in which they live (Glassberg & Shannon, 58).

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There are many different sources of political socialization that carry out this goal. These sources are often referred to as “agents” of political socialization. These agents include institutions such as the family, the school, the church (or other religious institutions), and the mass media. Though a large amount of the studies of the agents of political socialization involve the correlation of intra-family correlations in attitude or behavior (Hyman, 52), many studies show that as citizens advance in age, many other agents of socialization play a part in the formation of political thought including the mass media, popular culture and even the arts. Although, the relationship of the arts to the wider social/historical concerns is not a straightforward one (Hajimichael, 7), the arts still serve as a legitimate agent of socialization due to the influence of images on citizens. Though not as popular in the political science studies, the arts in its many forms also play a significant role in political socialization. Public opinion and political thought and behavior often go hand in hand. Because of this, the images, music, and literary works of art are just as influential in the process of political socialization as any of the other agents.

The Arts and their Role in Political Socialization

The arts are the various branches of creative activity such as painting, music, literature, dance, etc. The arts and its many forms surround citizens on a regular basis therefore, they contribute directly to the process of political socialization. (Demirel & Altintas, 444-448)The arts contribute to politics in many ways. Firstly, the content of the arts usually is reflective of the current political issues that may be taking place at the time. For instance in D.H. Melhams’s Art and Politics, Politics and Art, the author uses poetry to express some of the feelings and ideas surrounding wars at the time. (Melhem, 41-71). This shows how artists contributed to political socialization, even though it might not have specifically been their intention. These works of art spread certain opinions and thoughts about politics and the government and influence public opinion and political participation. While some artist utilized their art to spread certain messages about politics, governments have also been known to use the arts themselves as a way to socialize citizens. Many governments use methods such as censorship and framing in order to control the images that the people see. This is seen in the literary arts with banned books!. Many of the books on the banned books list such as Grapes of Wrath and To Kill a Mockingbird are banned because they send out a message that is contrary to what the political system at hand wants citizens to believe.

Along with books, many plays and other expressions of the arts have been censored due to unfavored political ideas (Pinter, 11-12) The materials that citizens have the opportunity to read and view has the potential to shape the way they think about politics and the world around them, therefore it is a legitimate source of political socialization and when the government gets involved and tries to control it, it is in efforts to socialize citizens. In a Huffington Post article titled, The Arts Too, are Patriotic, Robert Lynch describes how the arts have contributed to the American concept of patriotism. In many political systems, symbols, songs, and other works of art are used to promote a sense of national pride. This national pride builds political participation, cooperation with the government, and socializes citizens to have a sense of love and trust for the government. According to Lynch, “Yes, the arts are everywhere; the arts are ingrained. So perhaps instead of arguing for their inclusion, we should be celebrating ourselves. Shouting from the rooftops that the arts are, in fact, part of our everyday lives — at the largest celebrations and smallest child’s birthday parties, in our hospitals, at our military bases and in our communities. It turns out, the arts are as patriotic as the flag — which, of course, is our most famous piece of fabric art, too.”(Lynch, 2013)

Though throughout history there have been people that are excluded from the ideal image of citizenship and patriotism (ex. African-Americans in the US, Jews in Nazi Germany, etc.), these images, symbols and other expressions of the arts (such as flags, monuments, and national anthems) serve the purpose of promoting unity and support of the country.

Symbols and Structures

There are many images tha tplay a role in political socialization. Things such as flags, national flowers, and even national sports team colors all play a role in frming public opinion. These factors contribute to the idea of what it means to a be a citizen. Citizenship is very important in the study of political socialization because socializing citizens in one of the first steps in building a political system. A political system is somewhat dependent on citizens and their participation in politics. These images make citizens feel as if they belong to something bigger than themselves as an individual and that often encourages people to participate in political practices. Many political practices are shaped by public opinion and popular political thought and then translated to the citizens by way of socialization. Citizens are socialized to act a certain way and they cooperate due to the fact that they have pride in their country. As previously mentioned, visual images and symbols play a significant role in socialization. Studies in sociology show that young children are often most influenced by the things they see and hear (Langton, 140-158). The pledge of allegiance, the national anthem and facts about the flag are often taught to children in the US as early as age 5.

This begins the process of socialization. Children are often socialized in the home, at school, and the world around them so that they will act a certain way. This socialization is likely to stick with them into adulthood depending on the strength of the institutions. The arts play a large role in the socialization of children because studies show that songs, poems and illustrations, help children to learn in a way that “sticks” with them. Visual arts such as political cartoons teach children how to behave when it comes to politics and other aspects of life. Visual arts allow children who are even too young to read to be influenced and trained to think a certain way. Structures and monuments are also a very important aspect of socialization, specifically when it comes to children. Many elementary schools make an effort to take students to visit places such as the Liberty Bell, the Statue of Liberty, the White House and national art museums. This is in effort to influence political thought at an early age and shape behaviors of children with images. Images hold a great deal of power and can lead to the development of public opinion. These symbols and structure also play the role of leading in revolutions or shifting political thought in a different direction.(Grois)


One significant way that the arts play a role in politics is propaganda. (Joes 7-9) Propaganda is a form of communication that attempts to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist. (Jowett & O’Donnell, 1-3) The goal of propaganda is to basically use images to plant a certain idea in the brains of citizens or to persuade citizens to think a certain way. Governments often use propaganda to promote certain agendas such as war or new social movements. Due to its subliminal nature, propaganda is usually viewed in a negative light (Stanley, 1-26). Many of the forms of the arts are used for propaganda including film, literature, visual arts, etc. These works of art are displayed in a way that they are consumed largely by the public in order to influence public opinion. One of the most significant uses of propaganda in history is the use of Anti-semitic propaganda in Nazi Germany. During this period of time, Germany’s leader, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party controlled and manipulated images in order to influence the thought of the German citizens. This propaganda was seen in all forms of art and it made the influence of the Nazi party very strong. During this time, there were films in which Jews were portrayed as villains, cartoons, portraying Jewish people as rats and other disliked creatures, and even songs about the evils of Jewish people.

Hitler controlled all forms of art at the time so that there was no interference with his own political agenda.? The art that Hitler approved had two main purposes: to turn the German people against anybody without “pure German blood” (specifically the Jews) and to promote German nationalism. Hitler promoted German nationlism through visual art displays, music and film. The German people were able to feel a sense of pride in their country and many of them looked to Hitler as a great leader due to the positive German images that were promoted throughout all of Germany. This hateful agenda against the Jews was masked in a proud German nationalism and led to the people of Germany condoning the inhumane treatment of the Jews. In an article from the Holocaust Encyclopedia titled “Defining the Enemy”, it explains how propaganda was used to turn the German people against the Jews which eventually led to the Holocaust (a large mass killing of the Jews). This propaganda led to laws and policies that controlled Jewish people and gave them limited access to basic rights.

After only a few years, these images influenced German people to hate Jewish people who were formerly their peers. This is an instance of how influential propaganda can be and how influential the arts themselves can be on political thought and public ideas. Images have the power to shape perception and even to form ideas. Another notable instance of Propaganda is the images that were displayed in the US during World War II. During this period of time, the government wanted to influence the American people to participate in helping their country win the war. The propaganda was used to reach every demographic from school children to adults. Many of the images depicted the USA’s enemies as sinister creatures and often used animals and beasts to portray them. Agencies and business got on board with US war propaganda and used their advertisements to further the political agenda. During this time, the propaganda promoted the idea that everybody could play a part in helping the US win the war. (Riddle, 2016)

One of the biggest uses was to encourage young men to leave home and fight for their country. US Propaganda often portrayed soldiers as heroes and made fighting in a war seem to be an honorable job that any many would be proud to do. These images promoted American nationalism and made citizens feel proud of themselves for participating. Unfortunately, this propaganda had negative impact as well. Many of the images portrayed certain groups of people (such as Asian-Americans) negatively, leading to their mistreatment. Many Japanese-Americans were placed in internment camps due to fear that was supported by US propaganda. Though these effects were not as drastic as the Holocaust, the effects were still noticeable and detrimental to a group of people. Due to the fact that many people disregard the influence of the arts on politics, these negative events often do not receive as much attention as they should. The arts are an important and powerful force in political socialization and in order to manage their effects, their impact must be taken into consideration.

Conclusion: The Power of the Arts

Though often left out of the conversation of political socialization, a great amount of power lies in the arts. Due to the rise of access to the mass media (Moeller, 309-325), the arts are on the forefront of society more often now than ever before. It is important not to leave the arts out of the conversation of political socialization because it is proven that the arts has the power to socialize and even to bring about change. In the study of political systems, it is important to take into account the influence of the arts that are consumed by the public on a daily basis in order to have an accurate view of the sources of political thought. Film, music, poetry, literature and other art forms have always been in the background of social and political movements. Though their impact often goes unnoticed, it plays a significant part in the formation of political thought. Many activists use the arts as a form of expression but also to spread ideas to the public. The arts are one of the most significant ways of spreading ideas because the arts are heavily consumed by the public. Political socialization and how political culture is taught is still a growing area of study. This area of study will lead to helpful information on how to grow a political system in a successful way. As political science research continues to evolve, the impact of the arts on political socialization should be included in order to get an accurate measurement of how much the arts matter.

Works Cited

  1. Moeller, Judith, and Claes De Vreese. “The differential role of the media as an agent of political socialization in Europe.” European Journal of Communication, vol. 28, no. 3, 2013, pp. 309–325., doi:10.1177/0267323113482447.
  2. “Common Reasons for Banning Books,” Fort Lewis College, John F. Reed Library. Banned Books, Censorship & Free Speech. November 15, 2013. Web. March 19, 2014.
  3. Lynch, Robert L. “The Arts Are Patriotic, Too.” The Huffington Post, 4 Feb. 2013,
  4. Pinter, Harold. Art, truth and politics: the Nobel Prize lecture, December 7, 2005. New Delhi, India, Three Essays Collective, 2005. Langton, Kenneth P. Political socialization. Oxford Univ. Pr., 1969.
  5. Hajimichael, Mike, ed. Art and Social Justice: The Media Connection. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015.
  6. Stanley, Jason. How Propaganda Works. Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 2015.
  7. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Defining the Enemy.” Holocaust Encyclopedia. Grois, Boris. Art Power. Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 2013.
  8. Melhem, D. H. Art and Politics / Politics and Art. vol. 1st ed, Syracuse University Press, 2010. EBSCOhost, url= direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=714448&site=ehost-live.
  9. Irfan Nihan Demirel, Osman Altintas,. “Relationship Between Art and Politics”, Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, Volume 51, 2012, Pages 444-448, ISSN 1877-0428,
  10. Schwartz, David C., and Sandra Kenyon Schwartz, editors. New directions in political socialization. The Free Press, 1975.
  11. Segal, Joes. Art and Politics : Between Purity and Propaganda, Amsterdam University Press, 2016. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral-proquest
  12. Hyman, Herbert Hiram. Political Socialization: A Study in the Psychology of Political Behavior. Glencoe, Ill, Free Press, 1959.
  13. Glasberg, Davita Silfen., and Deric Shannon. Political sociology: oppression, resistance, and the state. Pine Forge, 2011.
  14. Riddle, Lincoln. “American Propaganda in World War II.” WAR HISTORY ONLINE, 11 Sept. 2016,

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The Role of Images, Symbols and Structures in Shaping Political Opinions. (2021, Sep 30). Retrieved from

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