Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann stands for a paradigm shift in the field of media effects research. In 1972 she presented her spiral of silence theory in Tokyo in a lecture entitled “Return to the concept of powerful mass media.” This paper can be seen as a break with the “minimal effects” hypothesis. Noelle-Neumann argued that research confined itself to short-term media influences, that it used poor measures, and failed to see crucial factors such as the consonance of the media, their cumulative effects, and their influence on the climate of opinion. She argued that these effects could only be measured by using a combination of media content analyses and representative public opinion polls – preferably by conducting several waves of surveys. Above all in the USA, her spiral of silence theory gave rise to a great number of empirical investigations that made Noelle-Neumann one of the bestknown figures in communication research worldwide.
Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann (b. 1916) studied Zeitungswissenschaft (newspaper science), history, philosophy, and American studies in Berlin. In 1937/8 she received a scholarship at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. In 1940 she obtained her doctorate in Berlin with a dissertation on public opinion research in the USA, Emil Dovifat being her doctoral supervisor. She then worked as a journalist until the end of the Third Reich. For this she has come under repeated attack (Simpson 1996; Kepplinger 1997). In 1947, Noelle-Neumann founded the Institut für Demoskopie Allensbach, where she paved the way for opinion research in Germany. She regarded her institute as a bridge between commercial and academic research. Thanks to the innumerable method experiments that she dedicated above all to questionnaire design, to the setup of rating scales, and to sampling methods , Allensbach indeed gained an exceptional position among survey research firms. Her textbook on the methods of opinion research (Noelle-Neumann 1963) has been translated into several languages.
In addition to developing methodology, Noelle-Neumann helped Allensbach to acquire a strong profile as an advisor for political parties (election research), as well as in the fields of market research (media analyses) and social research. Among other things her institute assisted in election campaigns for the German chancellors Adenauer and Kohl (both from the Christian Democratic Party). As far as her sympathy for this political party is concerned, Noelle-Neumann neither kept it secret, nor concealed her conviction that academics should intervene in public discourse. In Germany more than anywhere else, this commitment earned her criticism implying that she was producing results that were politically useful. Studies on press concentration, on press editorial department structures, and on the media’s influence on voters’ behavior came under particular attack.
In 1964 Noelle-Neumann was offered the newly created chair of Publizistik (public communication) at the University of Mainz. Trying there to win support for the use of empirical research methods (especially in the case of representative surveys, experiments, and quantitative content analysis), she became the most important driving force for a shift in the German-speaking scientific community toward an empirical social scientific approach. To her, the way things had developed in the USA was declaredly the model for imitation.
Cooperation between the Institut für Publizistik in Mainz and the Institut für Demoskopie Allensbach made it possible for Noelle-Neumann to encourage or herself carry out pioneering studies in several areas of research. In addition to media effects research and election research, special attention has to be drawn in this context to international comparative research on journalism, to vocational field research (self-understanding and the social condition of journalists, relations between editorial staff and media owners), and to happiness research (Glücksforschung). Furthermore, in developing the personality strength scale Noelle-Neumann made a major contribution to opinion leadership research. Composed of 10 items for self-description, this scale makes it possible to identify people with great charisma and assertiveness. Sociometric tests have shown that influentials hold central positions in networks and have a large circle of acquaintances, and that this enables them to overcome social communication barriers (Weimann 1991). Noelle-Neumann’s scale is used in political research, marketing, media planning, and network research.
Under Noelle-Neumann’s direction, the Mainz Institut für Publizistik became the discipline’s leading institution of learning in Germany. The “Mainz School” has produced communication scientists of international renown such as Winfried Schulz, Hans Mathias Kepplinger, Jürgen Wilke, Wolfgang Donsbach, and Hans-Bernd Brosius. Establishing links between scientific findings and training issues is part of the Mainz Institute’s tradition. So is its international orientation; in this context, particular emphasis must be put on Noelle-Neumann’s cooperation with the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) in the USA, and especially with Norman Bradburn. Between 1978 and 1991 Noelle-Neumann spent six trimesters in Chicago as a visiting professor, teaching political science.
Noelle-Neumann’s major contribution to the study of mass communication is her spiral of silence. That this theory follows the “powerful effects” principle is one of the reasons why it has given rise to debate. Wherever powerful effects are supposed to exist, media criticism is not far away, and neither is the resistance of journalists. Despite the debates, it is beyond dispute that Noelle-Neumann brought to the discipline of communication one of the most important theoretical innovations of the second half of the twentieth century. The spiral of silence theory is a macro-theory that comes as a challenge to the social sciences. It has brought the notion of public opinion back into the center of scholarly debate.
- Kepplinger, H. M. (1997). Political correctness and academic principles: A reply to Simpson. Journal of Communication, 47, 102 –117.
- Noelle-Neumann, E. (1963). Umfragen in der Massengesellschaft [Survey research in mass society]. Hamburg: Rowohlt.
- Noelle-Neumann, E. (1973). Return to the concept of powerful mass media. Studies of Broadcasting, 9 (1), 67–112.
- Noelle-Neumann, E. (1993). The spiral of silence: Public opinion – our social skin, 2nd edn. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.
- Noelle-Neumann, E. (2006). Die Erinnerungen. Munich: Herbig.
- Simpson, C. (1996). Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann’s “spiral of silence” and the historical context of communication theory. Journal of Communication, 46(3), 149 –173.
- Weimann, G. (1991). Back to the concept of opinion leaders? Public Opinion Quarterly, 55, 267–