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Public opinion consists of the desires, wants, and thinking of the majority of the people; it is the collective opinion of the people of a society or state on an issue or problem. The English term public opinion dates back to the 17th-century work by John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, which contains an early consideration of the importance of public opinion in the ordering of politics. The term was derived from the French word l'opinion, which was first used in 1588 by Michel de Montaigne.
This concept came about through the process of urbanization and other political and social forces. For the first time, it became important what people thought, as forms of political contention changed.
The emergence of public opinion as a significant force in the political realm can be dated to the late 17th century. However, opinion had been regarded as having singular importance since far earlier. Medieval fama publica or vox et fama communis had great legal and social importance from the 12th and 13th centuries onward. Later, William Shakespeare called public opinion the 'mistress of success' and Blaise Pascal thought it was 'the queen of the world.' John Locke in his treatise An Essay Concerning Human Understanding considered that man was subject to three laws: the divine law, the civil law, and most importantly in Locke's judgement, the law of opinion or reputation. He regarded the latter as of the highest importance because dislike and ill-opinion force people to conform in their behaviour to social norms, however he didn't consider public opinion as a suitable influence for governments.
William Temple in his essay of 1672, On the Original and Nature of Government gave an early formulation of the importance of public opinion. He observed that "...when vast numbers of men submit their lives and fortunes absolutely to the will of one, it...must be force of custom, or opinion...which subjects power to authority."
The prerequisites for the emergence of a public sphere were increasing levels of literacy which was spurred on by the Reformation, which encouraged individuals to read the Bible in the vernacular, and the rapidly expanding printing presses. During the 18th century religious literature was replaced with secular literature, novels and pamphlets. In parallel to this was the growth in reading societies and clubs. At the turn of the century the first circulating library opened in London and the public library became widespread and available to the public.
An institution of central importance in the development of public opinion, was the coffee-house, which became widespread throughout Europe in the mid-17th century. Although Charles II later tried to suppress the London coffeehouses as "places where the disaffected met, and spread scandalous reports concerning the conduct of His Majesty and his Ministers", the public flocked to them. For several decades following the Restoration, the Wits gathered round John Dryden at Will's Coffee House, in Russell Street, Covent Garden. The coffee houses were great social levellers, open to all men and indifferent to social status, and as a result associated with equality and republicanism.
More generally, coffee houses became meeting places where business could be carried on, news exchanged and The London Gazette (government announcements) read. Lloyd's of London had its origins in a coffeehouse run by Edward Lloyd, where underwriters of ship insurance met to do business. By 1739, there were 551 coffeehouses in London; each attracted a particular clientele divided by occupation or attitude, such as Tories and Whigs, wits and stockjobbers, merchants and lawyers, booksellers and authors, men of fashion or the "cits" of the old city center. Joseph Addison wanted to have it said of him that he had "brought philosophy out of closets and libraries to dwell in clubs and assemblies, at tea tables and in coffee houses." According to one French visitor, Antoine François Prévost, coffeehouses, "where you have the right to read all the papers for and against the government," were the "seats of English liberty."
Gentlemen's clubs proliferated in the 18th century, especially in the West End of London. Clubs took over the role occupied by coffee houses in 18th century London to some degree, and reached the height of their influence in the late 19th century - some notable names were White's, Brooks's, Arthur's, and Boodle's which still exist today.
These social changes, in which a closed and largely illiterate public became an open and politicized one, was to become of tremendous political importance in the 19th century as the mass media was circulated ever more widely and literacy was steadily improved. Governments increasingly recognized the importance of managing and directing public opinion. This trend is exemplified in the career of George Canning who restyled his political career from its aristocratic origins to one of popular consent when he contested and won the parliamentary seat in Liverpool; a city with a growing and affluent middle class, which he attributed to the growing influence of "public opinion."
Jeremy Bentham was an impassioned advocate of the importance of public opinion in the shaping of constitutional governance. He thought it important that all government acts and decisions should be subject to the inspection of public opinion, because "to the pernicious exercise of the power of government it is the only check." He opined that public opinion had the power to ensure that rulers would rule for the greatest happiness of the greater number. He brought in Utilitarian philosophy in order to define theories of public opinion.
The German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies, by using the conceptional tools of his theory of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, argued (1922, "Kritik der öffentlichen Meinung"), that 'public opinion' has the equivalent social function in societies (Gesellschaften) which religion has in communities (Gemeinschaften).
German social theorist Jürgen Habermas contributed the idea of "Public sphere" to the discussion of public opinion. The Public Sphere, or bourgeois public, is according to Habermas, where "something approaching public opinion can be formed" (2004, p. 351). Habermas claimed that the Public Sphere featured universal access, rational debate, and disregard for rank. However, he believes that these three features for how public opinion are best formed are no longer in place in western liberal democratic countries. Public opinion, in western democracy, is highly susceptible to elite manipulation.
The American sociologist Herbert Blumer has proposed an altogether different conception of the "public." According to Blumer, public opinion is discussed as a form of collective behavior (another specialized term) which is made up of those who are discussing a given public issue at any one time. Given this definition, there are many publics; each of them comes into being when an issue arises and ceases to exist when the issue is resolved. Blumer claims that people participate in public in different capacities and to different degrees. So, public opinion polling cannot measure the public. An educated individual's participation is more important than that of a drunk. The "mass," in which people independently make decisions about, for example, which brand of toothpaste to buy, is a form of collective behavior different from the public.
Public opinion plays an important role in the political sphere. Cutting across all aspects of relationship between government and public opinion are studies of voting behavior. These have registered the distribution of opinions on a wide variety of issues, have explored the impact of special interest groups on election outcomes and have contributed to our knowledge about the effects of government propaganda and policy.
Contemporary, quantitative approaches to the study of public opinion may be divided into 4 categories:
- quantitative measurement of opinion distributions;
- investigation of the internal relationships among the individual opinions that make up public opinion on an issue;
- description or analysis of the public role of public opinion;
- study both of the communication media that disseminate the ideas on which opinions are based and of the uses that propagandists and other manipulators make of these media.
The rapid spread of public opinion measurement around the world is reflection of the number of uses to which it can be put. Public opinion can be accurately obtained through survey sampling. Both private firms and governments use surveys to inform public policies and public relations.
Numerous theories and substantial evidence exists to explain the formation and dynamics of individuals' opinions. Much of this research draws on psychological research on attitudes. In communications studies and political science, mass media are often seen as influential forces on public opinion. Additionally, political socialization and behavioral genetics sometimes explain public opinion.
Mass media effects
The formation of public opinion starts with agenda setting by major media outlets throughout the world. This agenda setting dictates what is newsworthy and how and when it will be reported. The media agenda is set by a variety of different environmental and newswork factors that determines which stories will be newsworthy.
Another key component in the formation of public opinion is framing. Framing is when a story or piece of news is portrayed in a particular way and is meant to sway the consumers attitude one way or the other. Most political issues are heavily framed in order to persuade voters to vote for a particular candidate. For example, if Candidate X once voted on a bill that raised income taxes on the middle class, a framing headline would read "Candidate X Doesn't Care About the Middle Class". This puts Candidate X in a negative frame to the news reader.
Social desirability is another key component to the formation of public opinion. Social desirability is the idea that people in general will form their opinions based on what they believe is the prevalent opinion of the social group they identify with. Based on media agenda setting and media framing, most often a particular opinion gets repeated throughout various news mediums and social networking sites, until it creates a false vision where the perceived truth can actually be very far away from the actual truth.
Public opinion can be influenced by public relations and the political media. Additionally, mass media utilizes a wide variety of advertising techniques to get their message out and change the minds of people. Since the 1950s, television has been the main medium for molding public opinion.
Role of influentials
There have been a variety of academic studies investigating whether or not public opinion is influenced by "influentials," or persons that have a significant effect on influencing opinion of the general public regarding any relevant issues. Many early studies have modeled the transfer of information from mass media sources to the general public as a "two-step" process. In this process, information from mass media and other far-reaching sources of information influences influentials, and influentials then influence the general public as opposed to the mass media directly influencing the public.
While the "two-step" process regarding public opinion influence has motivated further research on the role of influential persons, a more recent study by Watts and Dodds (2007) suggests that while influentials play some role in influencing public opinion, "non-influential" persons that make up the general public are also just as likely (if not more likely) to influence opinion provided that the general public is composed of persons that are easily influenced. This is referred to in their work as the "Influential Hypothesis." The authors discuss such results by using a model to quantify the number of people influenced by both the general public and influentials. The model can be easily customized to represent a variety of ways that influencers interact with each other as well as the general public. In their study, such a model diverges from the prior paradigm of the "two-step" process. The Watts and Dodds model introduces a model of influence emphasizing lateral channels of influence between the influencers and general public categories. This thus leads to a more complex flow of influence amongst the three parties involved in influencing public opinion (i.e., media, influencers and general public).
Relationship with public policy
The most pervasive issue dividing theories of the opinion-policy relation bears a striking resemblance to the problem of monism-pluralism in the history of philosophy. The controversy deals with the question of whether the structure of socio-political action should be viewed as a more or less centralized process of acts and decisions by a class of key leaders, representing integrated hierarchies of influence in society or whether it is more accurately envisaged as several sets of relatively autonomous opinion and influence groups, interacting with representative decision makers in an official structure of differentiated governmental authority. The former assumption interprets individual, group and official action as part of a single system and reduces politics and governmental policies to a derivative of three basic analytical terms: society, culture and personality.
Despite philosophical arguments regarding public opinion, social scientists (those in sociology, political science, economics and social psychology) present compelling theories to describe how public opinion shapes public policy and find myriad effects of opinion on policy using various empirical research methods. Moreover, researchers find that causal relationships likely run in both directions from opinion to policy and from policy to opinion. On the one hand, public opinion signals public preferences and potential voting behaviors to policymakers. This impact should be greater under more stable democratic institutions. It should be greatest in the realm of social policy because the public are highly motivated by potential goods and services they get from the state. On the other hand, social policy impacts public opinion. The goods and services the public gets via social policy builds normative expectations that shape public opinion. Plus, social policy constitutes the largest share of state spending budgets, making it an active and contentious political area. Together these theories suggest that causal effects are part of a feedback loop between opinion and policy. Using increasingly sophisticated methods, scholars are beginning to grasp and identify the feedback of opinion and policy and use this phenomenon to explain the path dependency of institutions.
- American Association for Public Opinion Research
- Roper Center for Public Opinion Research
- European Society for Opinion and Marketing Research
- World Association for Public Opinion Research
- Gabriel Tarde
- Ferdinand Tönnies
- Walter Lippmann
- Wolfgang Donsbach, The International Encyclopedia of Communication. Wiley-Blackwell, 2008
- See (in French) Julien Théry, "Fama : l'opinion publique comme preuve judiciaire. Aperçu sur la révolution médiévale de l'inquisitoire (XIIe-XIVe s.)", in B. Lemesle (ed.), La preuve en justice de l'Antiquité à nos jours, Rennes, PUR, 2003, p. 119-147, available online, and Daniel Smail, Thelma Fernster (ed), Fama. The Politicas of Talk and Reputation, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2003.
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