Uploaded by Ivan Manokha


Journalism and Mass
Communication 566:
The History of Public Opinion
The History of Public Opinion
 Must understand history to understand the
current ideas about public opinion and
possible directions for future inquiry
 Three kinds of history
– Intellectual, theoretical debates over what
constitutes public opinion
– Sociocultural tracing of how opinions have
been expressed and assessed
– Communication developments linking opinion
of key events and occurrences
1. Philosophical Debates
 Pre-enlightenment philosophy:
– Then, educate public so opinion is in line with
the spirit of a fixed, sovereign law
 Contemporary approach:
– Now, modify the law so that it is in line with
the spirit of sovereign general will
Plato & Aristotle - 4th Century BC
 Plato distrusted the masses
– Unsure if citizens can understand their own
interests and strive toward a sound state
– Argued for educated philosopher kings
 Aristotle believed in “power of community”
– Defended the wisdom of the citizen
– Institutions should take “climate of opinion,”
values, norms, and taste — into account
Machiavelli (1469-1527) - 16th Century
 Focused on the strategic use of power by
political leaders; how to outmaneuver
 Recognized that public opinion has political
force that leaders must contend with
 Even in the most peaceful society, there are
conflicting values between rulers and ruled
Contract Theorists - 17th Century
 Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)
– Public is crucial to the formation of the state
– Structure of the state created by a “contract” between
the public and its leadership
– Little need to for ongoing participation
 John Locke (1632-1704)
– Argued for genuine and regular participation in civic
and political life by citizens
– Public opinion is an expression of democratic rights
French Enlightenment - 18th Century
 Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)
– Need to place power in the hands of the public
– Recognize the need to respect the community
– The state is based on the general will
• What citizens believe is the best course of action for
the community, for the welfare of the populace
– Citizen think about their interests and needs but
also reason about the general good of society
The Utilitarians - 19th Century
 Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832)
– Public opinion as a sanction
– A force that keeps society at equilibrium
– Discourages non-normative behaviors
• Say within an acceptable latitude
 John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)
– Emphasized the importance of majority opinion
– Greatest good for the greatest number
Political Theorists - 19th Century
 Tocqueville (1805-1859)
– Public opinion as a force of social control
• Hints at the “spiral of silence”
– Recognized the relationship between political
equality and importance of public opinion
• In systems of inequality, mass opinion is
unimportant; focus on political stakeholders
• In systems of equality, individuals view themselves
as capable and mass opinion is important
Political Theorists - 19th Century
 Marx (1818-1883)
– The corruption of democracy by capitalism
• Freedom as consumer choice not individual rights
– Common citizens tend to mimic the opinions of
the ruling class - people with wealth and power
• Media and elite opinion leads public opinion
• Often hold opinions in contrast with self-interest
• Hegemony - control of mass consciousness
20th Century Theorists
 James Bryce (1838-1922)
– British parliamentarian and Oxford professor
– Traced the role of news organs in the
communication of public opinion
– Argued mass media hold a place among other
major social institutions - courts, legislature
– News media direct and reflect public opinion
• Central role for media in political process
– Recognized the importance of conversation
20th Century Theorists
 Gabriel Tarde (1843-1904)
– French sociologist and social psychologist
– Theorized that the press shapes conversation,
which in turn shapes opinion and action
Media —> Conversation —> Opinion —>Action
– Lippmann and Dewey pick up this debate
2. Sociocultural History
 Trends in expression and measurement
– An increasing emphasis on order and routinization
– Movement toward private and anonymous expression
– Shift from local to national to international
Pre-19th Century Techniques
 Less systematic, more public, and local
– Opinion is communicated through rhetoric
• The art of public speaking and persuasion - 5th C. BC
• Oratory, the expression of ideas and values
• Rhetoric conveyed in unmediated, public forums
– Opinion is communicated in printed word
Printing press enables formation of publics - 16th C.
Large number of dispersed people can communicate
People can ally with causes, ideas, and institutions
Permitted political mobilization of groups
Coffeehouses and Salons - 17th C.
 Locations of political discussion
– Spend hours discussing the news of the day
– Coffeehouse: a public space
• Lawyers, journalists, tradesmen, workers
• Diversity of perspectives encourage debate
• Democratic view of public opinion
– Salons: exclusive and bourgeois
• Intellectuals, statesmen, artists
• Visited by Kings to gauge public sentiment
• Elitist view of public opinion
Petitions and Rallies - 17th/18th C.
 Signed declaration of public sentiment
– Focus political attention on certain issues
– Often angrily presented to leadership
• Slow shift toward social and institutional control
 Public demonstration of opinion
– Rallies, rioting and other public demonstrations
• Strikes, marches, public speeches
• Riots and other “popular disturbances”
Elections and Polling - 19th/20th C.
 Elections
– Secret ballot contrasts with the traditionally
public and attributed nature of mass opinion
 Straw polling
– Nonscientific, non-representative polls
– Still done today with “call in” and “e-polls”
– Literary Digest Fiasco, 1936
Representative Surveys - 20th C.
 George Gallup and Ralph Nafziger
– Pioneers in public opinion survey methods
– Sampling theory, random sample, response rate
– The dominant means of assessing mass opinion
 Sum of individual opinions
– Misses the notion of opinion elites
– Misses the questions of “power” & “influence”
3. Communication and Opinion
 Modern public relations developed in U.S.
 Result of political and markets freedoms
– Need to manage public opinion to thrive
 Old concept - dating back to notion of propaganda
devised by Catholic Church
– Tool to propagate the religion
 Has become a vital way for business leaders to
deal with economic factors, competitive
environment, and policy pressures.
History of Public Relations in US
 Hyping the Colonies
– Many settlers came to US in response to exaggerated
publicity claims to “secure money and men”
– Use poems, sermons, broadsides, and pamphlets
 Fostering a Revolution
– Tools of political public relations used to support
American revolt - 1763 - 1776
– Use of symbols, slogans, staged events, news framing
– Same tools critical to ratification of Constitution
Press Agents & the 19th Century
 Press agents, promotion, and ads support railroad
efforts to sell land and lure settlers to the West
 Taken to a new level by P.T. Barnum Circus
 By end of the 19th Century, advertising is
pervasive in all aspects of commerce
– An outgrowth of industrialization
– J. Walter Thompson founded in 1864
– Focus on name recognition and liking
– First PR firm in 1900 - Publicity Bureau
Ads and PR in Early 20th Cent.
 Beginning with WWI, Wilson uses “information
ministry to build public support
– Shift from defensive - reputation protection - to
offensive to build patriotic fervor
 Rise of experts in advertising, marketing, public
relations, and fundraising for post-war boom
 Bernays pens “Crystallizing Public Opinion”
– Defines PR as “two-way street”
– Must interpret the public for the institution and present
the institution to the public
The Modern Age
 WWII and the action agencies
– Need publicity to win cooperation and acceptance
– 100,000 people served in information posts (PR)
 Birth of the scientific public opinion poll
– Roper, Gallup, Nafziger develop systems: 1932 -1945
– Key tool for public relations specialists
 Rise of TV, mass marketing and globalization
– Information overload with marketing messages
– Mergers of PR and advertising agencies for integration
 The growth of Internet and social media