Bearing the dubious distinction of being one of the oldest, yet least understood, concepts in social science, public opinion continues to inspire and perplex scholars from communication and other fields. The term can be adequately defined as a general measure of the directionality and strength of issue-specific views and sentiments held by a relevant group. Public opinion bears a sort of syntactical internal contradiction: While “public” denotes the group and the universal, “opinion” on its own is typically associated with the individual and considered a somewhat internal, subjective formulation. The rise of survey research during the early twentieth century further complicated matters with a trend toward quantifying public opinion as a simple aggregation of individual survey responses. The rejection of such mathematical reductions – along with the suggestion that public opinion was in fact a group-level social force iteratively constructed through interpersonal interaction and media use – set the stage for a social science debate that has continued for well over 50 years.
The French term “l’opinion publique,” originally attributed to sixteenth-century French Renaissance writer Montaigne, was adopted in European thinking as political power and decision-making shifted away from the monarchy and toward the citizenry during the Enlightenment. With the advent of the printing press, knowledge became more distributed within societies, and this led to a realization that it might be possible to arrive at better decisional outcomes if more affected parties (i.e., the citizenry) were consulted. Until recent times, however, the citizenry considered to have a voice consisted primarily of land-owning, wealthy white males. One of the earliest problems to arise in conceptualizing what constituted public opinion was the difficulty of coming to some type of decisional outcome at the end of a public opinion process in which many different viewpoints were voiced. When parties disagreed, it was difficult to discern (1) whose views should be most prominently considered and (2) how other ideas could be eliminated. Additional debate centered on how “rational” a group could be considered in arriving at a public viewpoint. While some argued for an ideal speech situation, in which all points of view could be heard and equally considered, concern remained that public debate would be sullied by an emotional mob mentality in which rash decisions would be reached through manipulative means.
With these challenges in mind, Enlightenment-era thinkers set out to incorporate the views of the public into governmental decisions, while at the same time balancing this democratic input with the presumed knowledge and experience of government officials. In this way, a democratic government could consider the will of the people while maintaining stability against abrupt shifts in sentiment that could overrun the long-term authority of the state. This potential for mob-like behavior is often referred to as the “tyranny of the majority.” Divergent views of the role of public opinion in a democracy (i.e., a mandate from the people or merely the views of those affected by decisions) were typified by the 1920s debate between Walter Lippmann and John Dewey (Splichal 1999). Dewey believed that the more people included in arriving at a public opinion outcome, the better off the entire society would be. From Lippmann’s point of view, governmental decisions were best left to elected and appointed officials who were free to use public opinion as a guide to varying degrees.
This debate and other public opinion conceptualizations generated in the early twentieth century marked a shift from approaching public opinion as a philosophical subject to a perspective more rooted in the increasingly systematic approaches of social science (Binkley 1928). Yet this trend toward more scientifically rigorous methods created another debate, with one side seeing public opinion as an aggregation of survey responses, while others were more interested in public opinion as a socially constructed force that developed through media use and interpersonal conversation. For the survey-oriented group, George Gallup’s 1936 prediction of the United States presidential race was a watershed moment. With careful sampling techniques created to replicate the basic demography of the electorate, Gallup’s poll was able to correctly predict Franklin D. Roosevelt as the winner of the election with far fewer respondents than the Literary Digest poll, which had incorrectly predicted that Alfred Landon would win. Gallup’s reputation was further improved when he correctly predicted the Labour Party’s surprise 1945 victory in the United Kingdom’s general election. This led some to argue that public opinion was quite simply a collection of individual responses tightly linked to electoral outcomes.
For those more interested in social aspects of public opinion (Cooley 1962 [1st pub. 1909]; Tarde 1969 [1st pub. 1901]), public opinion was conceptualized as a type of normative force, which had the ability to influence media presentations and conversations about public issues. Public opinion was seen as a force opposed to tradition and reason. Long before the conceptualization of a two-step flow involving the media and subsequent interpersonal discussion, Tarde saw the important role that media played in disseminating new ideas, noting that the press had the ability to superimpose a kind of “public mind” upon citizens, who were more likely to talk about the ideas set forth in the media. Blumer (1948) rejected polling as a means of measuring public opinion. He asserted that the real value of public opinion was its ability to represent the views of many as a single force capable of influencing those in positions of power, governmental or otherwise.
Public Opinion Processes: Information Or Social Control?
From a societal perspective, public opinion can function in a number of different ways. Some scholars (Habermas 1989 [1st pub. 1962]) argue for the merits of thinking about public opinion as a rational, information-based phenomenon in which the best ideas will percolate to the top of the public agenda. Within the confines of the “public sphere,” citizens are exposed to a number of different ideas and opinions that they can hold or improve upon. In a manner akin to free market systems, the ideas that hold the most value are in the highest demand, while less popular ideas are pushed aside.
Others (Noelle-Neumann 1993) counter that public opinion is in fact a method of social control. Acknowledging that societies must be held together by some level of group-wide cohesion, this view posits a heavy influence of the mass media upon the general public. Instead of debating within a rational and unbiased opinion climate, most citizens are instead limited to considering the views put forth in newspapers or on television. Furthermore, these debates tend to mimic news coverage, allowing the views of the news media to become the dominant views within the public. The social control aspect is also involved within interpersonal opinion exchanges. NoelleNeumann’s “spiral of silence” theory predicts that those who believe that their viewpoint is in the minority will be less likely to express that viewpoint. Majority opinions are more likely to be expressed, leading to a spiraling effect in which majority opinions are overrepresented, whereas minority ones are underrepresented. This collective phenomenon is said to be rooted in individuals’ fear of becoming socially isolated from a group as a result of expressing an unpopular opinion.
The validity of both views (i.e., public opinion as rational information exchange versus public opinion as social control) can be seen in different opinion contexts, and it must be acknowledged that both play an important role in opinion exchange. The notion of individuals fearing social ostracism as a result of expressing an unpopular view highlights the often-neglected role that emotions and affective considerations play in public opinion processes. Scholars have long noted that relatively new or underdeveloped opinions tend to be based less on reason and more on “gut reactions” to ideas or individuals (Zajonc 1980). While such opinions might be considered low in opinion quality, they are nonetheless interesting from a research perspective because they are often the basis for opinions that could become more developed, better reasoned, and higher in opinion quality.
Levels Of Analysis
Perhaps the most difficult component of studying public opinion lies in conceptualizing public opinion processes with respect to different levels of analysis. As Pan and McLeod (1991) noted, the spiral of silence theory captures the inherent multilevel nature of public opinion as a social force. At the individual level, people connect with their social environment by talking to others and through exposure to media outlets. From this informationgathering process, they form perceptions of the “climate of opinion” surrounding a given topic. In this way, perceiving opinions can be seen as analogous to perceiving social norms in terms of looking to others for guidance as to what is and what is not acceptable in a given situation. In other words, the opinion climate at the macro-level impacts individual perceptions of opinion at the micro-level. Internalizing the opinion climate impacts individual expressions of opinion, and this further impacts the macro-level opinion climate. With the increasing popularity of multilevel modeling approaches in the social sciences, public opinion scholars may be on the brink of a betterspecified model of this dynamic and iterative process.
Public Opinion And The Media
Given the importance of the contextual effects in understanding public opinion, researchers interested in media effects, information processing, and political psychology have all contributed to public opinion knowledge. Over the past few decades, media effects research has shifted from investigating the direct effects (i.e., strong or limited effects) of messages to a more information-based cognitive approach. The information-processing approach seeks to identify how new, outside information – most of which is received by individuals via media outlets – is integrated with already-existing information. For those who see opinion formation as a continual, iterative process influenced by both pre-existing views and new contextual information, it is important to consider the characteristics of the mechanisms though which this new information is delivered.
A good example of this shift can be seen in agenda-setting research (McCombs & Shaw 1972), which initially focused on matching prominent news stories with lists of what the public perceived to be important issues. More recently, agenda-setting research has explored possible mechanisms (e.g., priming) through which this media effect might take place. Other research has focused on how the agenda-setting function can cause shifts in public opinion that go beyond a simple listing of what is important. In other words, agenda-setting research could be a much stronger theoretical framework if differently “set” agendas were shown to impact individual opinions as well as perceptions of macro-level opinion in a significantly different manner. Zaller (1992) presented another view of the impact of media and other messages on public opinion. In his Receive-Accept-Sample (RAS) model, people receive information, accept it or reject it on the basis of whether it fits with prior beliefs, and then sample from recent considerations when asked to offer their own opinion. Zaller also posited the existence of two-sided message flows, in which differing views on an issue are offered for individuals to consider. Political awareness is a key mediating variable in Zaller’s model, and those of moderate political awareness are seen as the most vulnerable to the dueling messages offered in two-sided flows.
Technology And Democratic Outcomes
In western societies, advances in information technology have historically led to increases in citizen access to political information and political power. Since the introduction of movable type, continually improving information technology has led to an overall trend of increased accessibility for citizens in terms of communicating their views to elected and appointed public officials. In other words, it has become easier for individuals to impact public opinion by contributing to the overall context or opinion climate in which issues are considered. Within that overall trend, though, there have been and will continue to be anti-democratic perturbations, whether in the form of censorship, surveillance, or elite control of opinion debates through technological means.
But exactly how will this new technology be harnessed for democratic outcomes? The barriers to news creation and dissemination are no longer as high as they once were. The recent explosion in popularity of web logs (i.e., blogs) indicates that many individuals are willing and able to put forth their own views and content for mass consumption. Indeed, through web links, e-newsletters, a plethora of cable and satellite television channels, and the increasing portability of wireless and hand-held communication technology, it seems that the potential for broadcasting information – political or otherwise – is almost limitless. Yet it remains to be seen whether the increasing availability of political information will have a marked impact on public opinion processes. It is possible that the people who were interested in politics before the Internet revolution will be the same people who make use of new technology. Problems with access, such as the digital divide, remain an issue for many, especially in developing nations around the world.
The key to unleashing the potential of technology’s role in facilitating the exchange of public opinion rests with government’s willingness to allocate more explicit decision-making authority – whether in the form of online deliberations or otherwise – to the general public. This has been and will continue to be a key hurdle for effectively employing information technology as a public opinion tool. Representative democracy is a compromise between the idea that all should have some form of access to decision-making authority and the notion that raw public opinion is too fickle to serve as a basis for a functioning democracy. Newspapers, radio, and television have certainly – each in its own way – improved the transparency of the operations of government while also allowing for the views of common citizens to be broadcast on a wide scale (e.g., letters to the editor, radio call-in shows). Fishkin (1991) and other deliberative scholars argue that this potential exists for online deliberative forums because the Internet ameliorates the effects of many key barriers to a more inclusive, deliberative democratic system (i.e., by bringing people together, controlling conversation, providing uniform access to relevant information).
To truly understand public opinion as it relates to society at large, however, social science first needs to address more basic questions regarding the exchange of political information, in terms of both interpersonal interaction and media exposure. Fundamental public opinion issues still need further consideration and explication: How do political ideas from the outside world enter the consciousness of individuals and become integrated with already-held attitudes, beliefs, and opinions? What role does emotion play in opinion formation?
With roots in political science and social psychology, mass communication research and public opinion studies are of a similar scientific pedigree. Recent attempts to realign these two formerly diverging fields of research signal an encouraging move toward recognizing public opinion as an inherently communication-centered phenomenon. Encompassing message production, media sociology, content analysis, media exposure effects, individual processing and other cognitive approaches, and interpersonal interaction, as well as a host of perception-based interpretations of social reality, public opinion can be seen as a chance to embark on truly interdisciplinary research. With the increasing speed of technological advancement, the channels by which information passes between sender and receiver are part of an increasingly complex and multifaceted process. Though polling information is available for almost any topic or political candidate, scholars and citizens alike recognize that there is more to the process than simply adding up the number of people who say they are for or against an issue.
Perhaps the tallest hurdle remaining for public opinion scholars is specifying and modeling key contextual factors of public opinion climates. Spiral of silence research gained much attention by noting that the perception of majority pressure can impact the likelihood of individual opinion expression. However, scholars have more recently recognized that perceptions of majority and minority pressures can vary according to the perceived strength of opinions as well as perceptions of how much agreement there is among a group or community.
- Binkley, R. C. (1928). The concept of public opinion in the social sciences. Social Forces, 6, 389–396.
- Blumer, H. (1948). Public opinion and public opinion polling. American Sociological Review, 13, 542–549.
- Cooley, C. H. (1962). Social organization. Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books.
- Fishkin, J. S. (1991). Democracy and deliberation. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Habermas, J. (1989). The structural transformation of the public sphere: An inquiry into a category of bourgeois society. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- McCombs, M. E., & Shaw, D. L. (1972). The agenda-setting function of mass media. Public Opinion Quarterly, 36, 176–187.
- Noelle-Neumann, E. (1993). The spiral of silence: Public opinion – our social skin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Pan, Z., & McLeod, J. M. (1991). Multilevel analysis in mass communication research. Communication Research, 18(2), 140–173.
- Splichal, S. (1999). Public opinion: Developments and controversies in the twentieth century. New York: Rowan and Littlefield.
- Tarde, G. (1969). The public and the crowd. In Terry N. Clark (ed.), Gabriel Tarde on communication and social influence: Selected papers. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 277–294.
- Zajonc, R. B. (1980). Feeling and thinking: Preferences need no inferences. American Psychologist, 35(2), 151–175.
- Zaller, J. R. (1992). The nature and origins of mass opinion. New York: Cambridge University Press.