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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Public Opinion

The views, interests and aspirations of the people constitute the core of the democratic system. In fact, democracy derives its authority from the people. It seeks people’s opinion on various issues of common interest. Infact, no government whether it is democratic or not, can afford to ignore the public opinion and pressure groups.
After studying this lesson, you will be able to
1. explain the meaning and characteristics of public opinion ;
2. recognize the significance and role of public opinion ;
3. learn about various agencies that contribute to the formation of public opinion ;
4. identify the hindrances to the formation of healthy public opinion
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]Donsbach, Wolfgang. The International Encyclopedia of Communication. Wiley-Blackwell, 2008. 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 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.
Public opinion is generally understood as the opinion of public, common people or the voice of the people. But public exactly does not mean people. There is no single public. In fact, there are several ‘public’. The total people as a whole do not constitute one single homogeneous public, having similar views or opinion. The public is not a fixed body of individuals. The term ‘public’ means a section of society, sharing common interests. It holds similar views and opinions on matters of public concern. It is therefore, not necessary that public opinion will be the opinion of all the people. It is not even the opinion of the majority. As there are many publics, there are also different opinions and different problems. Public opinion necessarily reflects diversity of opinion. It is also important to understand that public opinion is not the opinion of an individual, though he or she may be a highly respected person. It is not a private opinion. It is also not an expert opinion, irrespective of the wisdom of the expert. Public opinion is an organized and considered opinion of a section or many sections of the people on any public issue or concern. It is genuinely both public and opinion. It is neither a propaganda nor a public relations exercise.
Commonly the concept of public opinion is taken literally to mean the opinion of the public. While this is not incorrect, it constitutes a rather naïve understanding of the concept. A more sophisticated conception must acknowledge the element of publicity in public opinion: “public” opinion as distinguished from “private” opinion. Indeed public opinion is a shared aggregate phenomenon. It is a collective social entity, and publicity is necessary for its formation. It is the knowledge of the very existence of others who share values, beliefs and concerns that forges a host of discrete opinions into a viable social entity.
Public opinion holds an essential role in society. It mediates and accommodates social integration and social change. As a normative force it nurtures integration and stability. As a mechanism of aggregate foresight it paves the way to social and political change. Public opinion is thus a multidimensional phenomenon. In addition to its evaluative attitudinal facet, it comprises a strong normative component, a prospective informational one, and an expressive behavioral element (Shamir & Shamir, 2000). A fuller understanding of public opinion thus entails not only the tracking of the majority opinion, but also of the normative opinion - the opinion perceived to be the majority opinion. Similarly important are people’s expectations of future events and developments, as well as overt verbal symbolic and behavioral expressions of opinion.
Characteristics of Public Opinion
1. Public opinion is not the unanimous opinion but there is a general agreement on the issue.
2. It may change with the circumstances, time and new information.
3. Public opinion is logical and considered view of a section of society.
4. Public opinion necessarily reflects diversity of opinion.
5. There is no fixed territory or area for public opinion.
6. Public opinion ensures democratic communication.
7. Public opinion is not always related to political matters.it can also realate to economic,social and cultural matters
8. Public opinion is subject to continuous modification until it reaches final shape-
Significance and role of public opinion
Public opinion is considered to be the essential element for successful working of democratic communication in the system. Public Opinion is the expression of the views of citizens. No government can afford to ignore it. A sound and effective public opinion can even shake the structures of dictators. The strength of democratic system lies in respecting the mind power of the people. There should be free and fair interaction of thoughts for solving the collective problems. Public opinion acquires great relevance in realising this democratic goal. It promotes wider awareness and invites citizens to examine issues from different points of view. The significance and role of public opinion can be explained as follows:
(a) Guide to the Government: Public opinion acts as the guide to the government in respect of policy formation. Government functions in general on the basis of mandate received in elections and tries to win over the masses to fulfil the promises made during elections.
(b) Helping in Law Making: Government is always under pressure of public opinion and takes note of the same in formulating laws for the common good. Governmental policies are invariably affected by people’s opinion on various issues. Public opinion helps the government to enact laws in the given situation.
(c) Acts as a Watchdog: Public opinion acts as a watchdog. It controls and checks the government from becoming irresponsible. While criticizing the wrong policies of the government, public opinion always keeps the government alert. Government is always concious of the fact that people would not vote for it or bring it back to power again if it goes against the wishes of the people.
(d) Protects the Rights & Liberties: Public opinion acts as the protector of rights and liberties of citizens. In a democratic country, people have the right to criticize or support the government in their own way. More effective and positive use of this right not only encourages or motivates the government but also keeps the government alive towards the rights and liberties of the people.
(e) Acts as a Powerful Force in International Sphere: - Public opinion has acquired worldwide importance. In fact, international relations are influenced by public opinion. In the age of globalization, the issues like promotion and protection of human rights, environment and discrimination based on race, religion or sex, prevention of child labour, terrorism etc. hold international community answerable to public opinion. Therefore, the governments remain conscious of such international public opinion also. Infact, no democratic government can afford to ignore public opinion.
Formation of public opinion
There is no difinite and automatic process for the formation of public opinion. Whenever an issue of public concern emerges, various sections of society express their views. In the process some views receive larger attention and emerge as public opinion. There are informal and formal processes that mould public opinion.
Political Socialisation
Political socialistion is the basic process through which every indivitual is oriented with respect to political issues. A human being lives and grows in family, neighbourhood, friends, the locality and the region. The orientation of attitudes, beliefs and values towards the political system acquire shape in association of their groups. The most influencial in personality formation and character building are the family and the peer group. They provide the basic mould in influencing the ideas and opinions of the individual. The orientation of individuals through this process determines their views and reactions towards political issues.
Press Democracy at Work
The print media includes newspaper, periodicals, pamphlets, journals, leaflets etc. Press or print media supplies the news regarding all political and social happenings in the world. It throws a flood of light on current issues. In fact press is regarded as the watchdog of democracy by carrying the voice of the public to the government. People express their criticism or support in the form of articles, or comments through press. Hence, make the government responsible and answerable.In fact, government also propagates its policies and programmes through media. It tries to highlight its achievements to make public opinion in its favour.
Radio and Television
Electronic media i.e. radio and television act as a mirror of social life. Print media influences only the educated. The electronic media plays an important part in collecting the information and moulding the thoughts of the uneducated masses also.The audio-visual media is used as a powerful means for bringing about social transformation and setting up a new social order free from social evils. It is used to educate the masses on certain sensitive issues like casteism, communalism violence etc. Through radio and television masses communicate their feelings and opinions towards various government policies and programmes.
Cinema has been the traditional medium of entertainment and awareness. The cinema caters to the artistic and intellectual needs of the people. It cultivates new ideas and norms in the society on political and social problems. Feature films and documentary films have their natural impact on the thinking of the people. This audio visual method can even influence the illiterates.
Public Meetings
Public meetings or platforms are effective means of moulding public opinion for different social, cultural, intellectual and political activities. They address the public issues and are able to gather huge crowd through lectures, seminars, symposia, workshops and conferences. They try to establish personal and emotional bond with the public and motivate them towards positive and healthy steps.
Political parties and their activities
Political parties formulate and organize public opinion. They are called mobilisers of opinion. Political parties not only make the people aware of various public issues. Their purpose is to make the people politically conscious to think about public problems. Political parties publish journals, pamphlets, leaflets, manifestoes, posters etc. to mould the public opinion in their favour.
Opinion Polls
Opinion polls serve to indicate public opinion at the time of their being taken. They are a very effective way of gathering information about public attitude and opinion on various political, social, cultural, economical etc. matters. They are normally conducted by professional agencies selecting representative samples of population. Of late they are becoming a very useful and popular method to understand and analyse public opinion. There have been instances when these opinion polls have not been able to analyse the situation correctly and the results or predictions have been falsified. But they surely have significant influence on public opinion.
Educational Institutions
They include schools, colleges, literary clubs, study circles, universities and libraries etc. They can mould public opinion to a great extent. The adolescents get easily swayed by the opinion of others. Therefore the right kind of training is very important for this age group. Eminent leaders, scholars and educationists help in moulding their leadership qualities and help in creating public opinion through Debates, Talks, Seminars etc. Various co-curricular activities like Drama, Symposium, Painting/Slogan writing competition etc. also prove very effective in sensitizing the students on important national and international issues. There are certain limitations on the use of public opinion. It is believed that the public takes interest in local and national affairs. The public is reasonably well informed. The public thinks, with reason and logic and arrives at the rational conclusion. The opinion of the public is expressed through the elections/polls. Public opinion always keeps the government on its toes and the alert government makes the laws based on social and moral principles expressed by it. Public opinion is the voice of interested spectators of action. Public opinion reflects the plurality and diversity of opinions. Sometimes it is taken very casually. It is more a matter of interpretation. Fault does not lie with the opinion but with the interpretation. At times, sample may also not be appropriate. In modern mass societies people read, listen and see so much that it is not always easy for them to sift facts from fiction. Hence, it poses a great challenge to people to make intelligent discrimination of news and views. However, the fact remains that public opinion is very effective means of communication between the government and the citizens.
Hindrances to the formation of public opinion
Public opinion will not be a true reflection of the ideas of public until the following hindrances are eradicated :
(a) Indifferent Attitude: Generally, people like to keep themselves away from political activities. They do not take interest in public affairs. Generally they think that their involvement in political decision making is not required. There is a need to change the indifferent attitude and adopt participatory approach. People should be motivated to take interest in the affairs of their own country. People have to be sensitized towards important issues related to unity, integrity and development of the nation.
(b) Illiteracy: Educated and enlightened people are expected to be good voters and citizens. Illiterate people on the other hand, have a limited knowledge and they do not understand the political problems. They are not capable of forming an intelligent and rational opinion and are guided by passion and sentiments. Ignorance born of illiteracy is a curse for social life. A sound public opinion can be formulated only in the environment of knowledge and education.
(c) Poverty: The poor are always isolated from politics. They do not find time to devote their attention to public affairs. They get easily influenced by the tall talks of the political leaders and cast or even sell their votes. The government, non-governmental organization and pressure groups have to play their effective role. The wide gap between the rich and the poor has to be minimized and the distribution of wealth must be equitable. Sound and healthy public opinion is possible only by alleviating poverty.
(d) Disharmony amongst various castes and communities: The people and political parties, in democracy have to rise above the feelings and emotions of casteism and communalism. They should not divide themselves into narrow walls of religion and sect. Religion and politics should be kept separate. Social harmony in the country would provide a better platform for sound and healthy public opinion.
(e) Free Press: Unbiased, objective and independent press and fearless media play a very significant role in the formation of healthy opinion. Press should not be influenced by religious capitalist or regional interests. Free press should present the authentic and impartial report.
Books suggested
Walter Lippaman-Public opinion
The book provides an analysis of public opinion. It does not consider public opinion an expression of the people, or any such nonsense. Its goal, rather, is to explain how public opinion is “manufactured.” Mr Lippman distinguishes between true facts, the human picture or impression of a selection of the facts and the resulting human action based on the picture.
the picture inside so often misleads men in their dealings with the world outside.
This book begins with a discussion of social psychology. It explains how people see through different paradigms.
Human beings living in a sort of underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all across the den; they have been here from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them; for the chains are arranged in such a manner as to prevent them from turning round their heads. At a distance above and behind them the light of a fire is blazing, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have before them, over which they showthe puppets.
“Where all think alike, no one thinks very much.”
Walter Lippmann

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