Public opinion is the aggregate of individual attitudes or beliefs held by the adult population. Public opinion can also be defined as the complex collection of opinions of many different people and the sum of all their views.
The principle 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.
Concepts of "public opinion"
Public opinion as a concept gained credence with the rise of "public" in the eighteenth century. The English term "public opinion" dates back to the eighteenth century and has derived from the French l’opinion publique, which was first used in 1588 by 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.
Adam Smith, one of the earliest classical economists, refers to public opinion in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, but it was Jeremy Bentham, the famous utilitarian Philosopher, who fully developed theories of public opinion. 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 functions 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.
Private opinion and 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.
The use of public opinion studies
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 a random sample survey, if done correctly. Governments have increasingly found surveys to be useful tools for guiding their public policies. The US Department of Agriculture was one of the first government agencies to sponsor systematic and large scale surveys. It was followed by many other federal bodies, including the US information agency which has conducted opinion research in all parts of the world.
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.
The tide of public opinion becomes more and more crucial during political elections, most importantly elections determining the national executive. Some think the Overton window is a method for shifting or describing shifts in public opinion.
It is frequently measured using the method of survey sampling.
- American Association for Public Opinion Research
- European Society for Opinion and Marketing Research
- World Association for Public Opinion Research
- Gabriel Tarde
- Ferdinand Tönnies
- Walter Lippmann
- ^ Donsbach, Wolfgang. The International Encyclopedia of Communication. Wiley-Blackwell, 2008. Print. .
- ^ cf. Rolf Fechner/Lars Clausen/Arno Bammé (eds.): Öffentliche Meinung zwischen neuer Religion und neuer Wissenschaft. Ferdinand Tönnies' „Kritik der öffentlichen Meinung“ in der internationalen Diskussion, in: Tönnies im Gespräch, tom. 3, Munich/Vienna: Profil 2005, ISBN 3-89019-590-3.
- Edward L. Bernays, Crystallizing Public Opinion, 1923
- Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, 1989 (Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit, Neuwied 1962)
- Jacob Shamir/Michal Shamir, The Anatomy of Public Opinion, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000. 
- Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion, 1922.
- Norman John Powell, Anatomy of Public Opinion, New York, Prentice-Hall, 1951.
- Ferdinand Tönnies, On Public Opinion, 1970 (Kritik der öffentlichen Meinung, 1922, critical edition by Alexander Deichsel, Rolf Fechner, and Rainer Waßner, Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter 2003)
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