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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Concept 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).

The German philosopher Jürgen Habermas contributed the idea of "Public Sphere" to the discussion of public opinion. Public Sphere, according to Habermas, is where “something approaching public opinion can be formed”. Habermas claimed that it is featured as universal access, rational debate, and disregard for rank. However, he believed that these three features for how public opinion should be formed are not in place in western democracy. 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. Three communities of people who form Public Opinion 1: Public Leaders and Thinker 2: Common Educated Class 3: Common People

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. Governments have increasingly found surveys to be useful tools for guiding their public information and propaganda programs and occasionally for helping in the formulation of other kinds of 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. A continuously used technique is propaganda.

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.

In 1500, the term "public opinion" had no currency in any European language. By 1789, not only had the phrase entered the vocabulary of virtually every language in Europe, but conscious efforts to affect or even control public opinion had come to play a key role in some of the most crucial intellectual and political events of the epoch—the origins of the French Revolution itself being only the most famous case in point. It is hardly surprising, then, that both the idea and the reality of public opinion in the early modern period should have been the object of an exceptional amount of scholarly attention in recent decades.


The component parts of the term, noun and adjective, had long histories of their own, prior to their union in the modern concept. Descending from classical Latin, opinio and its cognates were burdened with a primarily pejorative connotation in the vocabulary of Renaissance humanism. Typically contrasted with "reason," "opinion" tended to designate ungrounded belief, subject to the psychological distortions of the "imagination" and the "passions." The widely circulated humanist cliché, asserting that "opinion governs the world," was thus an expression of regret at the domination of the irrational in human affairs. This negative judgment persisted throughout the early modern period, though the eventual union of "opinion" with the adjective "public" weakened it significantly. "Public," meanwhile, descended directly from the Latin adjective (publicus) and noun (publicum) used to refer to that which pertained to the state, as opposed to the private household—the collective body of its citizens or its property, above all. For obvious reasons, these terms and their cognates acquired a new currency with the onset of the modern processes of state-building at the end of the Middle Ages. No less important, however, was the eventual extension of the noun, in particular, beyond the boundaries of the state itself. By the end of the seventeenth century, it was possible to refer to a variety of different "publics," in the sense of a critical "audience"—as in the "publics" for plays, music, and novels. As for the actual term public opinion itself, finally, the first usages seem to have been in French, in the later sixteenth century: the phrase can be found, for example, in Montaigne's Essays. Most authorities agree, however, that the term only really gained currency, in French and in English, about a century later.

"Public Opinion and the Public Sphere"

What brought "opinion" and "public" together, to form a new concept? As it happens, nearly all recent research on the topic owes something to a seminal work of social theory that first appeared some forty years ago. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962) was the earliest major work of the eminent German philosopher and social theorist Jürgen Habermas. Its influence on German-speaking scholarship was immediate, but its greatest impact came with its long-delayed translations into French (1978) and English (1989). The appeal of Habermas's book is not hard to explain, for it offered a sweeping and sophisticated interpretation of the history not just of "public opinion," but of "publicity" itself, from the end of the Middle Ages to the present. A Frankfurt-school Marxist in intellectual background, Habermas traced the origins of a specifically bourgeois "public sphere" to the impact of the transition to market capitalism, on the one hand, and the emergence of the modern sovereign political state, on the other. It was between the two characteristic social institutions produced by these changes—the modern private or "nuclear" family and absolute or divine right monarchy—that a "sphere" for the free exchange of information and opinion developed, sustained by new technologies and institutions of communication, including the newspaper, journal, salon, and Masonic lodge. The heyday of the "bourgeois public sphere," Habermas argued, came in the eighteenth century, when its promotion of the fundamental values of the Enlightenment—liberty, equality, fraternity—brought immense critical pressure to bear on the social and political institutions of the Old Regime. In the long term, however, success ruined the bourgeois public sphere. The spread of representative political institutions in the wake of the American and French Revolutions, and the rise of modern mass media, combined to rob the public sphere of its capacity for autonomous criticism of society. Far from governing the modern world, Habermas concluded, "public opinion" was itself now fully subordinated to the routines of electoral politics and the blandishments of consumer advertising.

Public Opinion in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries

Not surprisingly, Habermas's pessimistic account of the decline of the public sphere in the modern world has proved controversial. His description of its original emergence in early modern Europe, on the other hand, has met with far greater acceptance, although with significant alterations. For one thing, the confident Marxism of Habermas's explanatory framework has tended tacitly to be set aside over time. The adjective "bourgeois," assigning a central role in the story to an emergent social class, has all but disappeared from the recent literature on the "public sphere" and "public opinion." At the same time, the result of several decades of research has been to assign both concepts a rather longer period of gestation than Habermas did in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Habermas did in fact draw attention to the print revolution of the early sixteenth century as a crucial condition of possibility for the emergence of the public sphere. Today, it seems even clearer that both the print revolution and the onset of religious Reformation were watersheds in its development. The breakup of the ideological unity of Christianity unleashed propaganda campaigns, designed to sway opinion in one direction or another, on a hitherto unprecedented scale. The ferocious "religious" warfare that followed in Germany and France was accompanied by equally strenuous struggles in print. By the early seventeenth century, the most advanced political thought in Europe, the "reason of state" traditions in France and Spain, expressly recognized the power of public sentiment, which every ruler ignored to his or her peril. What were once theorized as the first of the great "bourgeois" revolutions—the Dutch Revolt and the English Civil War—brought propaganda warfare of this kind to an even higher pitch, far more explicitly tied to the fates of states than ever before. The condemned king of England made a powerful appeal to the "public" virtually from the scaffold. Less lethally, the end of the seventeenth century saw the arrival of a relatively novel phenomenon, secular intellectual controversies in a national context. "Public opinion" itself seems to have entered circulation, in France and England, in the midst of the ideological contests known as the querelle des anciens et des modernes in the first, the "battle of the books" in the second.

The Eighteenth Century: Institutions

Despite this long windup, however, Habermas was surely right to insist on the qualitative difference of the role of public opinion in the eighteenth century, when both idea and reality assumed unprecedented forms. Intellectually, there is little doubt that the impact of the Enlightenment was crucial in this respect. Educated elites in Europe were now far more willing than ever before to acknowledge the sovereign power of an anonymous public, in regard to the evaluation of everything from imaginative literature and music to governmental policy itself. At the same time, the expansion in the sway of public opinion in the eighteenth century depended not merely on ideological shifts, but also on the arrival of new modes of communication and social institutions. Probably the greatest contribution of Habermas's work in the long run has been to inspire an extremely lively social history of the technological and institutional underpinnings of public opinion in the age of Enlightenment. On the one hand, the eighteenth century saw a vast expansion in both the production and the consumption of printed matter. The increase in volume was matched by variety, with the full maturation of new forms of literature, from the newspaper, feuilleton (serial publication), and periodical, to the novel. "Authorship" itself increasingly came into its own, under the protection of emergent copyright laws and other forms of recognition of literary property; for the first time in European history, the "writing public" came to include significant numbers of women. On the other hand, this whole spectrum of new "reading publics" was sustained by a set of "semi-public" social institutions. Three of these stand out, now the objects of a rich historical literature. One was the literary and intellectual salon, which descended from the Renaissance court to play a pivotal role in promoting Enlightenment values, in France above all; not the least striking feature of eighteenth-century salon culture was the central role assumed by women within it. Secondly, the eighteenth century was the great age of the public drinking establishment, where the commingling of classes and consumption of stimulants encouraged a freer flow of ideas than ever before. The proliferation of taverns, alehouses, wineshops, and cafés was recognized by contemporaries as crucial to the formation of public opinion in the Enlightenment. The same went, finally, for a third institution, Freemasonry, whose spread across Europe in the eighteenth century created sites of egalitarian sociability and communication—with, on occasion, evidence of female participation as well.

Historically, public opinion has had two meanings. In a positive sense, it meant public consensus. Consensus is formed when people have open discussion and debate on an issue and when their objective is to discover the truth or to agree on the best plan. Ideas are stated publicly where they can be challenged and defended. Ideally, after a period of time in open debate, it will be clear that some ideas are better than others. This kind of consensus-forming debate is required of juries, but it can take place on a much larger scale. The United States, as a nation, debated and reached a general consensus on issues like independence from England, slavery, and the right of workers to organize; we have yet to reach consensus about the need to send troops to Vietnam and Iraq, or the legal status of abortion. Not all public debate results in consensus, but a faith in the public's ability to form this kind of public opinion is the underlying social principle of democracy.

The pejorative use of the expression public opinion refers to an irrational process resulting in agreement — to the opposite of public consensus. This public opinion is an agreement arrived at without debate. And it is an agreement among people who are not being honest and careful. It is the public opinion of propaganda, mass hysteria and tyranny. The framers of the U.S. Constitution wanted citizens to participate in rational consensus formation and to avoid irrational processes resulting in mere agreement. That is why they created a representative government instead of a true democracy. Congress, for example, is made up of representatives who are elected every two years and senators who are elected every six years. Representatives reflect popular sentiment. Senators, being further removed from the election process, can afford to be more reflective and cautious. The effects of this were clearly seen in 1998 when the House voted to impeach President Bill Clinton and the Senate did not.

Considered in light of its historical meanings, the public opinion represented by most surveys is not the public opinion of consensus. Surveyed public opinion is gathered in private from anonymous interviewees. It is not pre-tested in open debate, and the opinion itself, not the truth or the usefulness of the idea, is the objective of the interview. Thus, survey data reported as “public opinion” can be misleading and harmful, even though the research process was performed with great precision.

Prepared by Biju P R,Assistant Professor in Poltical Sceince,Govt Brennen College,Thalassery

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