The first institution we experience in life is family. As long as humans have existed, they have gathered in groups in order to survive—to pass down knowledge, lend protection, and form bonds. Not only does the institution of family help us survive, it has a strong hold on our political beliefs and attitudes.
A new study from Neil Fasching and Yphtach Lelkes of the Annenberg School for Communication finds that the family structure of one’s ancestors—sometimes dating back thousands of years—reliably predicts their political beliefs today. If you come from a family line with strong kinship ties (who typically live with extended family and marry within their community), you’re likely to hold right-wing cultural values, and among some, left-wing economic attitudes.
“Interestingly, we find evidence that the association isn’t just with the individual beliefs,” says Fasching, a doctoral student studying political communication. “It plays out even at the country and legislative level. If a country’s population is rooted in close, tight-knit families, that country is less likely to pass LGBTQ-friendly laws, for example.”
In order to trace the effects of ancestral kinship strength on contemporary political attitudes, Fasching and Lelkes assigned “kinship tightness scores” to more than 20,000 second-generation immigrants living in 32 European countries. They chose second-generation immigrants in order to disentangle the respondents’ current location from their ancestors’ location.
The researchers crunched the numbers, using data on individuals’ beliefs, values, ethnic groups, and the degree to which a person’s ethnic group has historically depended on hunter-gathering versus agriculture, to determine the association between right-wing beliefs and family structure. Fasching and Lelkes also measured individuals’ political engagement.
Modern family kinship structure is determined by many factors, the researchers say, but most commonly, it is based on who family members are allowed to marry, geographic distance to extended family, and trust of outsiders.
These structures can date back to early civilization, when hunter-gatherers searched for game and Neolithic humans farmed crops and bred animals. Hunter-gatherers tended to have relatively weak family ties due to their need to travel to find food. It was easiest for these societies to revolve around the nuclear family, rather than establish permanent settlements with extended families and strong kinship ties.
The researchers found that kinship strength is strongly associated with more anti-LGBT laws. Countries low on kinship tightness, such as Norway, Finland, Germany, and the United States, were much less likely to have implemented anti-LGBT laws, while countries high on kinship tightness, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Grenada, and Liberia, were much more likely to have anti-LGBT laws.
“While policy decisions may seem like they’re driven by current or transient factors, our research shows that public policy is also deeply rooted in the cultural fabric of a society,” says Lelkes, associate professor of communication at Annenberg and co-director of the Polarization Research Lab and the Center for Information Networks and Democracy. “Ancestral family kinship structures are a part of that cultural fabric and can shape the fundamental values and social norms that underpin our societies. These structures were formed based on the environment in which our ancestors lived, and can have a significant influence on the policies that are ultimately adopted.”
This story is by Hailey Reissman. Read more at Annenberg School for Communication.