Definitions of public opinion tend to fall into two categories, considering it either as a collection of individual opinions or a kind of social organization. The first school is represented by Albert Venn Dicey, a nineteenth-century legal scholar who described public opinion as “a general term for the beliefs held by a number of individual human beings.”
Those who define public opinion as what is found by attitude surveys follow a similar approach.
A different point of view was expressed by sociologist CHARLES HORTON COOLEY, who saw public opinion as no mere aggregate of separate individual judgments, but an organization, a cooperative product of communication and reciprocal influence, “Ferdinand Tonnies, a German sociologist, took a similar approach when, A he described public opinion as the unified opinion, or what passes for it, of a group of people, especially when it approves or disapproves, He notes that this is the sense in which the term is used in the German legal code of his time, which calls for appropriate punishment for anyone who originates or disseminates information about another person that is designed to make this person appear contemptible or to lower his standing in public opinion.
Another division is between those who use public opinion mainly or exclusively with reference to politics and those who apply the term to a. broader range of phenomena, A frequently quoted definition advanced by Hans Speier describes public opinions as “opinions on matters of concern to the nation freely and publicly expressed by men outside the government who claim a right that their opinions should influence or determine the actions, personnel, or structure of their government. “
Other social scientists see public opinion as also playing a role in economics, science RELIGION, and many other domains, All usages at all times tend to assume that public opinion can exercise influence, Its power may be strong or weak, but the fact that it has the potential to exert force is one of the basic characteristics by which it is recognized.
Although the term Public opinion was not generally used before the eighteenth century, earlier references to the phenomenon can be found. A letter from King Shamshi-Adad of Assyria (1815-1782 B.C.E. ), for example, warns his viceroy against tampering with the land allotments of the inhabitants of the Euphrates region, since such action would surely provoke “loud public outcry. “
Austrian historian Wilhelm Bauer concludes that public opinion was an active force in the politics of classical Greece and Rome and had to be taken into account by the government, whether a dictatiorship or a democracy, Indeed, the art of PERSUASION became so highly developed in ancient Athens that ARISTOTLE’S Rhetoric is still used as a text today. To illustrate the importance of public opinion to Roman politicians, Bauer quotes from a letter sent to CICERO by a friend when he was temporarily away from the capital “If anything of greater importance of a political nature should occur, I will diligently describe to you its origin, the general opinion about it, and the prospects for future action that it opens up. “
Bauer and other historians who examine public opinion in previous centuries often treat the channels of communication as indicators, from whose nature and extent the existence and characteristics of public opinion can be inferred, Thus, during the medieval period in western Europe, when information channels extending beyond the village market were few, expensive, and often dangerous, public opinion played a relatively minor role, Currents of opinion did, however, have some importance in those locations that were better served by communications and where literate people congregated Rome other religious centers, and royal and ducal courts, But for the great majority of the population, questions posed by daily life were usually settled by religion, custom, and the local authorities.
As communication channels revived, the role of public opinion grew, The Italian city-states, which flourished from about 1200 to 1600, provided forums for lively debate on issues of all kinds among interested and concerned people, many of whom could read and write. Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) is labelled by Bauer as the first modern publicist, a social critic who used his pen and talent in mobilizing public opinion to oppose the abuses of his time, Tightly built urban centers, providing almost ideal conditions for the communication of ideas, developed north of the Alps also Antwerp’s stock exchange, the first institution of its kind, was founded in 1460 and rapidly became a world-class center for news and RUMOR.
The printing press, an even greater aid to communication than the city, spread rapidly throughout Europe following JOHANNES GUTENBERG’S first use of movable type in 1436 or 1437, It provided much of the fuel for the religious and national strike that enveloped Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Regularly printed newspapers started to appear in several German principalities shortly after the year 1600. By the end of the century the major cities of Europe and some in other continents had newspapers, even though many were heavily censored or regulated. By the middle of the eighteenth century, when the French and American revolutions were brewing, substantial numbers of people in Europe and north America had become members of a group that political scientist Gabriel Almond has labelled the “attentive public, “These were literate people, mostly well-to-do, who took a continuous interest in political, social, and cultural affairs of the day. Typically, they lived in cities and read newspapers, many of
which had by this time gained sufficient freedom to print news about controversial subjects and, as historian Stephen Koss notes, were regarded by the authorities as “vehicles of turbulence. “
When, at the end of the eighteenth century, the ancient regime in France was toppled and existing governments all over Europe were threatene observers commonly blamed or praised public opinion for having played a major part in the upheaval. It became a subject that preoccupied politicians, political philosophers, and journalists, There was no doubt about its significance, although there was still some question about exactly what it was.
Formation of Public Opinion
For public opinion to form, three elements must be present communication channels, issues, and public, As historical surveys demonstrate, mass media are not necessary more primitive channels are in some cases quite adequate, although a combination of mass media and interpersonal channels appears to be optimal, An issue may be defined as a question affecting a substantial number of people for which there is no generally accepted “right” answer, and which is therefore a likely subject for discussion, A public includes those people who give their attention to an issue they must have at least something about it, Communication links issues with members of the public and may link members of the public with one another, The Study of the formation of public opinion is essentially the study of the way these linkages are created.
A schematic description of the emergence of an organized body of opinion might identify the following stages.
(1) An individual forms an attitude about an issue as a result of exposure to communications about it. If this attitude is then expressed in words, action, or gesture, it becomes an opinion, If it is never expressed, it does not become an opinion and plays no part in the public opinion process. Some individual ATTITUDES become part of public opinion on an issue only because they are expressed to a public opinion interviewer or in a voting booth. (2) Ordinarily, people voice their opinions about issues to members of one or more face-to-face groups to which they belong. If members of the FAMILY, neighbourhood, or work group are in substantial agreement, a common opinion on the issue may develop, Opinions that meet strong opposition among a person’s associates are likely to be changed, or the individual holding them may break with the group (3) Through the mass media or interpersonal networks, people become aware of opinions among the, larger public, If they find support for their own views, they tend to express these more often and more confidently if they meet disapproval, they are more likely to remain silent. (4) When partisans become aware of others who share their opinions, a “we” feeling may come into existence, This body of opinion may grow by a snowball or spiral process until nearly everyone who is disposed to agree shares the “we” feeling.
In practice, public opinion on each issue follows a slightly different course, Not all stages can be identified in each case, and varying proportions of a public may be included in the body of opinion on an issue.
Whether person-to-person communications or the mass media are more important in the formation of an attitude on an issue depends on the individual’s social environment and on the nature of the issue, People who have loose-knit networks of friends and acquaintances tend to rely more on the mass media for information about issues and for guidance in forming their own attitudes those belonging to intimate social groupings are more likely to acquire information and attitude via word of mouth, Usually, mass media (including books and magazines) and personal sources complement and reinforce each other, A person may learn about an issue from a RADIO broadcast, talk about it with friends, and then go to a newspaper for further information, The resulting attitude is likely to be influenced strongly by a person’s pre-existing attitudes and values and by his or her social and economic situation.
Group Pressures. Once attitudes are formed, and expressed as opinions, they often are modified so as to harmonize with the opinions expressed by others with whom one associates, Even if the attitudes themselves do not change, it is customary for them to be formulated in a way that does not do violence to the group consensus, if there is one. And the more closely group members are. linked by a network of INTER-PERSONAL COMMUNICATION, the more likely it is that as consensus will exist, The result of CONVERSATION about a subject within a group is ordinarily the formation of a common opinion, to which most members conform at least outwardly. Nonconformists are likely to remain silent or, if they differ strongly, to leave the group.
Examples of group pressure can be seen prior to almost any ELECTION, when family, neighbourhood, and work groups all tend to influence the voting intentions of their members.
When an issue is given attention by the mass media, the resuly is usually to encourage wider discussion and to promote the aggregation of opinions on the issue into one or more larger bodies of public opinion, Political scientist Bernard C. Cohen observed in connection With foreign policy questions that the media are not especially successful in telling us what to think, but are stunningly successful in telling us what to think about. Scholars later gave the name AGENDA-SETTING to this ability of the press to direct public attention to certain subjects.
Social Movements. The opinion mobilization process is furthered also by the mass media’s ability to stimulate group formation and even social movements, Tom Burns, a student of public opinion in eighteenth-century England, notes that the radical press, including pamphlets, was of great importance in “articulating and promoting opposition and protests” and that newspapers “could themselves provide the occasion for regular semiclandestine meetings, it being common practice for them to be read aloud in public houses and coffee houses throughout the country, Much the same process could be observed in the growth of the women’s movement in the 1960s and 1970s.
Examination of the women’s movement, or of any major social movement, shows the reciprocal relationship between social movements and public opinion. A movement may arise in response to popular sentiment on an issue, but then one of its principal objectives becomes to influence the public, The opinions of those concerned about air, water, and soil pollution stimulated several movements to protect the environment, and most of these movements then launched massive publicity campaigns.
Information media frequently make it possible for individuals who otherwise might feel that they are alone in holding their opinions or are members of a small minority to gain courage from the knowledge that others agree with them Perception of others opinions affects one’s willingness to speak out Some researchers have found that those who think the attitude they hold on an issue is gaining ground are more likely to express this attitude, A circular process develops: more people voice their opinion when they think it is gaining ground, and some who hear this opinion are emboldened to express themselves, At the same time, those who hold dissenting opinions are less and less likely to be geard from, Eventually, opinion on one side of the issue dominates the public channels of communication; opinion on the other side exists but is not heard, This phenomenon has been called by Elisabeth Noelle- Neumann”the spiral of silence.
The spiral process can lead to a variety of configurations of public opinion, Only rarely are all members of a public prevailed upon to accept a particular point of view; there are almost always some holdouts, Even in regard to questions of fashion in CLOTHINGS or SPEECH, nonconformists often flout the preferences of an overwhelming majority, Or there may be several contending bodies of opinion, each of which has “spiraled up” to a point where it has absorbed all, or nearly all, of those amenable to its point of view on the issue in question, This is often the- state of public opinion prior to elections in those democratic countries in which two major parties enjoy almost equal support.
Social Effects of Public Opinion
There are two major categories of social effects of public opinion, usually labelled social control and decision making, The idea that public opinion can play a role in social control-namely, in causing individuals and groups to conform to social norms and standards of behaviour prescribed by larger or super ordinate societal units-is implicit in the way the term is frequently used, In a popular French novel from the late eighteeth century a young woman is warned against associating with a man of bad repute, since even if he should change his ways public opinion would remain against him, In Henry IV Shakespeare has the king urge his son to have more regard for opinion, and not be seen too often in bad company, Similar statements can be heard today.
Sociologists have noted the part played by public opinion in social control.Edward A. Ross, in the first volume of the American Journal of Sociology (1895), spoke of public opinion as “an instrument -of discipline the judgment the public pronounces on an act as to whether it is righteous or wicked, noble or ignoble.”
ROBERTCIPARK and Ernest W. Burgess, in their early and influential sociology text, Introduction to the Science of Sociology (1921), designate public opinion as the dominant form of social control in secondary groups and cities, where “fashion tends to take the place of custom, “Tonnies went even further, attributing to public opinion much of the social control function that had in former times been exercised by religion.
To exercise such a function, the existence of public opinion must be known to the person or group whose behaviour is to be controlled, GOSSIP cannot influence behaviour if the victim never learns about it, The victim may go about his or her business, not comprehending the social snubs or economic discrimination he or she encounters, Politicians, corporations, and government agencies frequently subscribe to clipping services or commission private polls to learn about public reactions to their activities. If the “image” is bad, the offending behaviour may be corrected, or, more commonly, a PUBLIC RELATIONS campaign may be undertaken. Those who, fearing public disapproval, attempt to . keep secret their activities and sometimes their thoughts are implicitly paying tribute to the effectiveness of public opinion as a form of social control.
Related to social control is the decision-making function of public opinion in society. In social control a consensus forms and influences some behaviour that deviates from a norm; in decision making, the consensus determines what the group as a whole should think or do.
The decision-making function of public opinion is most obvious when it is formalized in a constitution that calls for elections, Less obvious but more common is the case in which public opinion comes into play in problematic situations where no laws, customs, norms, or other rules apply, or. where there is a dispute about their suitability.
Public discussion of an issue frequently leads to the establishment of norms of conduct or the passage of laws, Park saw some rules of behaviour as “judgments of public opinion in regard to issues that have been settled and forgotten” Prior to the mid-twentieth century, for example, it was accepted that a male passenger in a public conveyance should offer his seat to a female passenger if she had none. This norm of conduct came under question is the women’s rights movement gained momentum, There was a period of discussion; dominant opinion came to hold that it was not required for the male passenger to stand. This judgement came to be embodied in a new norm.
Whether a law or some other kind of role is or is not an outgrowth of the public opinion process, it cannot survive without public support. The statement of -eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher David Hume that it is on opinion only that government is founded is regarded by some scholars as being extreme, but that it includes a large. measure of truth is rarely disputed. Social scientists have found that any law, unless it is accepted by a substantial majority, is likely to become a dead letter, Similarly, public acceptance of a solution to a crisis, worked out by politicians, is often the outcome of a consensus built through publicity and wide discussion. Such a consensus was created, for example, during the Water gate affair in the United States and was one of the reasons the potentially divisive issue did so little damage to the country.
Change and manipulation of Public Opinion
Communication channels, issues, and public are the. principal elements involved in the change of public opinion, just as they are involved in its formation. Issues change not only because of new developments but also because old problems are settled, When discussion of a question leads to the establishment of a new norm, the enactment of a law, or the election of a particular candidate to office, public opinion on that issue tends to disappear.
On occasion one issue is pushed off center stage by another issue, Only a few subjects i can be prominent in interpersonal channels of communication on any one day, Gossip places a premium on novelty and freshness; issue wear out and are replaced, The mass media are similarly limited, We sometimes say that a subject is “forced of the front page” by more sensational news.
Changes in public opinion may also occur because public change, People become interested in different things, The bitter religious wars of seventeenth-century Europe were stilled not so much because accommodation between the Protestant and Catholic forces had been reached but because attitudes toward religion changed, As the advancement of science and the industrial revolution brought new ideas and concerns, especially to those with more EDUCATION, religious questions that previously had been disputed with vigour came to be seen as less important, Smaller public continued to debate these questions, but much of the public for the religious issue had been lost.
Those who seek to influence or manipulate public opinion frequently make practical application of what is known about its formation and change. If they have the power, they control and regulate the channels of communication, emphasize some issues while ignoring others, and do their best to mobilize public that will favour their policies.
Those who have power can often keep issues under control, A government can release or withhold a controversial report, Those who have less power may not be able to create or eliminate issues in this manner, but they can emphasize certain subjects and ignore others. It is customary for political candidates, with the help of their campaign advisers, to select and emphasize certain issues, hoping to direct public attention to them, Advertisers do the same thing,They may not be able to improve a product, but they can stress some of its characteristics and gloss over others, One season, diplomats at international conferences fence so fiercely over the agenda is that whatever is talked about is likely to influence public opinion one way or the other.
Equally common, or perhaps more so, are efforts by opinion manipulators to build public and mobilize bodies of opinion Jean Stoetzel notes that one of the most elegant techniques of PROPAGANDA is to build on scattered, private opinions, and to crystallize these into public opinion; “Vague hopes can be utilized” and “diffuse, discontent can be merged into a revolutionary current.,”Those who are leaning toward a particular party or candidate, or are already exercised about an issue, can often be mobilized by campaign. propaganda and incorporated into a body of supporting opinion.
Nearly everyone is concerned with the manipulation of public opinion, Even those who take no interest in public affairs are likely to try to influence the opinion that other people have of them, And most of us, at one time or another, engage in propaganda designed to mold opinion regarding issues that affect our community, organizations to which we belong, or our country as a whole.