If you think that public opinion, as a public concept, appeared in the US or Britain no more than three centuries ago, as some textbooks claim, then you are quite wrong. People always had an inherent need to take an interest in the opinions of others, and our remotest ancestors resorted to some very creative solutions in the absence of professional pollsters and methodologies:
- According to reports from the earliest times in the Tigris-Euphrates valley, the Caliph used to make incognito “visits among the common people”. Having disguised himself as an almsman, he took a walk around the city, hearing a lot of interesting opinions about his governance;
- The ancient Roman historian Tacitus wrote that public opinion was determined in a natural way – on the basis of sound effects, voting and ostracism – when citizens wrote their opinion about a man who should be exiled on the potsherds. A citizen whose name was mentioned by more than 6 thousand voters was sent into exile for a period of 10 years. “If you don’t support this proposal then it is rejected, and if you do – tap on the floor with your frameas (spears – editor’s note). “Approval by weapon is the best sort of approval” – such was Tacitus’ description of the ancients’ customs;
- The system among ancient Greek tribes, which continues to the present day, allowed every citizen to be heard in the course of a public meeting, where citizens voted and expressed their opinions by a show of hands. The council of elders considered it important to reckon with every opinion in order to sustain the common good and their own authority;
- Citizens of ancient Greece and Rome voted using pebbles or stones of various colors. It helped their rulers to make decisions taking account of majority opinion;
- The conclusion of gladiatorial fights in ancient Rome quite often depended on majority decisions. Caesar or the governor could grant a pardon to a participant in the Games or sentence him to death at the wish of the spectators, thereby winning the affection of the crowd;
- The first signs of propaganda appeared in the Holy Roman Empire, when campaigners for exalted positions hired professional troubadours, who sang the praises of the candidates in public spaces and in the marketplaces, thus inspiring public support;
- The followers of Taoism believed that one of the four possible reasons behind the collapse of the state would lie in the fact that rulers do not respond to the feelings and sentiments of the people in the governing process.
The term “public opinion”, in its contemporary interpretation, was used for the first time in the 17th century by the English writer John Salisbury in order to underscore the nation’s support for Parliament.
As is evident from the foregoing, even in ancient times public opinion was regarded as the verdict of the majority of the people. Public judgments were inextricably connected to the development of government institutions. It is no surprise that along with the study of public opinion, our ancestors also developed the concept of public relations. Emperors told the newspapers what to publish, kings employed heralds, and the first presidential candidates hired public agitators. To this day, philosophers and sociologists reflect upon the phenomenon of public opinion, about the process of its formation and its historical significance. While some people engage in scientific work on the subject, thousands of others call themselves pollsters and make it their primary employment. The professional pollsters are the ones who have come up trumps.
Opinion polls were invented by newsmen
It is believed that the first opinion poll was conducted in 1824 by the US newspaper The Harrisburg Pennsylvanian. It predicted that Andrew Jackson would crush John Quincy Adams and win twice as many votes in the Electoral College. By the way, the forecast turned out to be wrong – despite Jackson’s competitive advantage Adams managed to be elected President when none of the four candidates won a majority in the Electoral College and the election was decided in the House of Representatives. However, this didn’t prevent such surveys from gaining enormous popularity in the early 20th century. They were dubbed the “straw polls”, a term which also refers to a highly subjective selection of respondents.
Until the mid-20th century pollsters frequently went off track by asking questions which were not quite ethical, violated the privacy of others, or disregarded some social groups (e.g. blacks, immigrants, inhabitants of deprived areas, Jews and Muslims). On top of that, they frequently composed inappropriate research agendas that naturally affected the results. However, the public responded quite enthusiastically to this phenomenon, because it gave rise to a feeling of unity with like-minded people and inspired political self-awareness. For instance, post cards with questionnaires were sent to the subscribers of newspapers regarding their suppositions on who would win the elections. The readers gladly responded to these inquiries by sending their answers to the editor’s office. Forecasts made by the newspapers in this way have repeatedly failed because the surveys were conducted only among the representatives of one social stratum.
George Gallup, the most famous pollster in the world, cashed in on this wave when he led the public opinion industry in a direction that was not only constructive, but, after some time, became a very profitable one.
Public opinion does not exist?
That is the title of a report by the well-known French sociologist and political scientist Pierre Bourdieu, which was published in 1973 in the French magazine Pan Modern. In his work, Bourdieu called into question the three postulates of public opinion polls, and claimed the following: firstly, not all people are capable of forming their own opinion; secondly, not all opinions are relevant; thirdly, society hardly ever comes to a consensus on what topic attracts such widespread attention that it can fall under the heading of public opinion. In a typical survey, the sociologist asks all respondents the same question on the presumption that there is some agreement on the “agenda”, which is certainly a false approach.
Another scientist, the American sociologist Herbert Blumer, claimed that various topics are discussed in various communities in different degrees and every individual is involved in the formation of opinion in his own way. Therefore, it is necessary to talk not about public opinion, but about the polemical collective behavior. Participation of a person of keen intellect in the discussion is far more valuable than, for example, the opinion of an unemployed drunkard.
Spiral of silence
This concept was initially suggested by German sociologist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann in the mid-20th century. It appeared that most people prefer not to express their own opinions unless and until they learn about the prevailing, or dominant, point of view and also what opinions are less popular. If a person finds out that his point of view is not generally accepted, he will not express it openly in order to avoid being marginalized. The situation that arises when one element among the respondents is eager to express its opinion and others are trying hard to conceal theirs is an intensification of the spiral process. It means that one particular point of view will dominate the others. If a person is concealing his genuine opinion, then his entourage will act in a similar fashion, thus increasing the “spiral of silence”. Noelle-Neumann’s concept was observed not only in Germany, but also in many countries with authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, where people were afraid of expressing a political or any other opinion that might contradict governmental policy. This fear provides an opportunity for the amplification of false public opinion and increases the number of the “close-lipped”. If this sparks your interest, find out more about the Ash conformity experiment.
The arguments of sociologists and skeptics have so far had an insignificant impact on the popularity of polls and on the phenomenon of public opinion in general. Thousands of research projects of local and global scale, aimed at gathering and structuring majority opinion, are conducted on a daily basis. In case we still haven’t determined our own point of view, it could always be delivered to us on a tray under the guise of “natural” public opinion. But is such a dish necessarily nutritious and good for us? This decision rests with society, and not with us.