Sociologists explore the role of learning from others (socialization) on everything from eating and controlling bodily functions, to language, to following the rules of daily life (norms), to developing beliefs and values.
If you doubt the role of socialization (learning from others) in eating behavior, then you've never spent any time with a baby or small child. They will put anything in their mouths to taste, and I mean anything, so the only thing standing between a human child and eminent death by poisoning is socializing agents such as parents, grandparents, older siblings and other caretakers, who teach (socialize) the child to distinguish between proper "food" and other consumables. This of course also includes teaching the child that many things that non-poisonous and are acceptable as food in other cultures are off limits and "nasty" in our own -- such as insects, worms, and dirt.
Of greater interest to most sociologists are the learning processes (socialization) for acquiring cultural norms, beliefs and values -- the non-material aspects of human culture. Sociologists and anthropologists vary in their views of how much of our adult attitudes, believes and values are socialized (enculturated) in childhood, and how much continues to evolve throughout our life time. Like many sociologists I am most influenced by thinkers like George Herbert Mead who view socialization and the development of the self as life long processes. While key developments happen in early childhood, the self and the attitudes, beliefs and values of the self are an on-going process shaped by the continuing interaction with others.
Another part of the sociological debate over socialization concerns the relative importance of various agents of socialization: parents, siblings, relatives, teachers, peers (friends, schoolmates), ministers and Sunday school teachers, and in the modern world media (books, magazines, television, music, movies, video games, etc.). Few sociologists question the primacy of parents or other primary caregivers in infancy; and much research has been done that establishes that television (especially televised violence) has an impact on childhood socialization. During the 1970's a great deal of research explored the role of children's books in shaping children's perceptions and attitudes about gender and gender roles.
In that spirit a new book, Little House, Long Shadow: Laura Ingalls Wilder's Impact on American Culture (University of Missouri Press) by Anita Clair Fellman, now chair of the women's-studies department at Old Dominion University, investigates the impact of this popular series of books on the political values and attitudes of recent generations of Americans. As reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education "Note Bene" July 11, 2008 [sorry, this is a subscription only article]:
She [Fellman] found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that Wilder's own staunch individualism had informed the tenor of the novels. "Distraught by New Deal policies that created an expanded role for government," Wilder had, in her books, expressly depicted government as "nothing but rules and bureaucracies destructive to the enterprising individual," sometimes manipulating the facts of her youth — on which the books are based — to achieve this effect. The Little House books instead champion the self-reliance, isolationism, and "buoyancy of spirit" Wilder felt had made America great.
Fellman carefully notes, "Looking at the Little House books in this way would be only a case study for my starting proposition that sources other than overtly political thinking and rhetoric might have contributed to a continued appreciation for individualist ideas." Yet, she continues, "there are not many people who are aware of the formative influence of what they read in childhood on their core political views."
As a sociologist, I am suspicious of this sort of purely textual analysis. Until research actually links the reading of these books in childhood, to the development of conservative, individualistic values in adulthood in specific individuals, Fellman's work remains highly speculative. Moreover, one would have to explore the interaction of exposure to books like this with the political values expressed within the family.
My own experience causes me to question the value of Fellman's conclusions. No one I knew growing up spent more time reading Laura Ingalls Wilder's books than I did. I read the entire series several times before the age of 18, and the last four books (dealing with Laura's adolescence and early adulthood) in the series more than a dozen times during the same period, and have probably read it another 5 or 6 time since that. Many of the girls I knew never read it at all, and none of the boys -- including my two brothers -- I knew read it or had it read to them. Despite my fondness for the series, and my admiration for the pioneer spirit expressed within it, my own political values were far more influenced by my parents, who were (and still are) staunch liberals. The fact that my father gave me The Communist Manifesto to read at age 11, and encouraged me to read his union paper every week, were far more influential on my political values than the Wilder series, no matter how beloved.
Moreover, my family experience suggests that adult experience is also influential on political values. One of my brothers, who read neither the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, nor The Communist Manifesto as a child, but was exposed to the same liberal political rants at the dinner table, grew up to be a Reagan (and Bush) conservative. I strongly suspect that his adult political values have a lot more to do with his economic self interest (he's been much more affluent than myself by 400 to 600 percent for the past 3 decades) in low taxes and policies that benefit investors than with any childhood influences. My own adult experiences both as a knowledge worker at the lowest end of the scale for my occupation, and as a faculty advisor and friend to many women struggling with the welfare system also continued to mold me into a liberal.
A current candidate for president also made an excellent argument, though much maligned, for the role of adult experiences on shaping political values. Although, as a sociologist I would suggest that the words "disaffected" or "alienated" would be more accurate than "bitter," his assessement of the impact of frustration on political attitudes reflects what I have observed in the working class and lower middle class communities where I have lived and taught.
My general sense, contrary to Fellman's argument, is that the swell of conservatism that brought Reagan to office had more to do with those who read little or nothing in childhood and whose only contact with the Wilder story was through the Michael Landon TV series, than it had to do with the influence of a series of children's books. But the only way the question could be answered would be to actually measure the political attitudes of individuals and compare that to their childhood reading experiences.