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Sociology Public Opinion
by
Andrew Perrin

Introduction

The modern idea of public opinion research developed in the 1930s as a promising way to bring new scientific techniques to bear on important matters of democracy and representation. The theory and practice of public opinion research reflected that time period’s increasing faith in science and the increasing sense that an important piece of being a democratic citizen was holding an opinion. As the number of such citizens grew, they became both more spread out across the country and more concentrated in large cities, and governments sought to make democracy more representative; thus it became increasingly important to understand how citizens were thinking on important matters. Public opinion research offers a systematic, reliable approach to that problem, and that is both its strength and its weakness. Public opinion research provides a ready picture of the views of ordinary citizens and, at the same time, changes the ways citizens consider their opinions and the range of issues they hold opinions about. In the contemporary United States, public opinion polling is everywhere. Citizens know what it’s like to answer questions, whether in person, on the telephone, or on the Internet. They also know what it means when a poll is reported in the media. Politicians follow those polls closely and use them to argue their positions with their colleagues, the press, and the public.

Foundational Ideas

From the beginning of modern polling, social scientists have debated over what public opinion is and how to measure it. The famous “Lippmann–Dewey Debate” between Walter Lipmann (Lippmann 1922, Lippmann 2009) and John Dewey (Dewey 1954) put these questions into sharp relief. Lippmann argued that no real public existed, and that we should therefore not expect to run government according to its views. Dewey, by contrast, argued that citizens formed publics when there was something to debate about. The essential ideas in this debate formed the background for more technical discussions such as the definition of “attitudes” in Allport 1935 as the underlying raw material of public opinion. Childs 1939 and especially Gallup and Rae 1940 are prime examples of how a technique of scientific measurement helped define and crystallize the concept of public opinion for scientists and citizens alike.

  • Allport, Gus W. 1935. Attitudes. In A handbook of social psychology. Edited by Carl Murchison, 798–844. Worcester, MA: Clark Univ. Press.

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    Allport introduces the social scientific concept of attitudes as underlying, relatively stable mental states of individuals. Attitudes direct how an individual will develop an opinion or view about a particular topic, but they are not themselves opinions. Instead, attitudes determine how a person will process new information and new questions in order to generate her opinion.

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  • Childs, Harwood L. 1939. “By public opinion I mean”—. Public Opinion Quarterly 3.2: 327–336.

    DOI: 10.1086/265298Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Perhaps the strongest statement from the early period of the claim that public opinion was what polls measured.

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  • Dewey, John. 1954. The public and its problems. New York: Swallow Press.

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    This book was a direct response to Lippmann’s pessimistic view of the public. Dewey intended to determine where publics come from and what they can (and can’t) do. Optimistic about everyday citizens’ ability to form ideas about public life, yet pessimistic about trends that lead citizens to avoid politics, Dewey argued that publics emerge when people share a concern about some problem. This disagreement became known as the “Lippmann–Dewey Debate.” First published by Henry Holt in 1927.

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  • Gallup, George, and Saul Forbes Rae. 1940. The pulse of democracy: The public-opinion poll and how it works. New York: Simon & Schuster.

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    Gallup was the founder of the legendary polling organization that bears his name. In this early book, he states the case that polling provides a necessary backbone for modern democracy. Its theory is pragmatic, not principled, and demonstrates the natural affinity between democracy and public opinion polling. More than sixty years later, Frank Newport returned to the same themes for the 21st century in Polling Matters (Newport 2004, cited under General Statements).

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  • Lippmann, Walter. 1922. Public Opinion. New York: Harcourt, Brace.

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    The esteemed journalist Walter Lippmann holds that, in general, citizens do not actually hold public opinions. Instead, most citizens understand their own private concerns and do a relatively poor job of understanding how those concerns relate to the wider public world. Because of this, democratic government ought to strive to be efficient and effective, not so much responsive or deliberative.

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  • Lippmann, Walter. 2009. The phantom public. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

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    Following his prior book, Public Opinion (Lippmann 1922), here Lippmann declares that there is no actual public. Rather, democratic government imagines there to be a public in order to make government more legitimate. Originally published in 1925 (New York: Harcourt Brace).

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General Overviews

These works offer basic information about public opinion, polling techniques, and patterns of responses to polls. Asher 2007 is a guidebook to figuring out polls and polling; Glynn, et al. 2004 is a strong textbook on the structure and meanings of public opinion.

Research History

Although polling seems like second nature to Americans these days, it was not always that way. The ideas and practices of public opinion research emerged in particular ways, and that history matters for how we understand public opinion today. These histories explain where public opinion research came from and how it developed. In 1936, the then-famous Literary Digest poll failed to predict the outcome of the presidential election, in which Franklin Delano Roosevelt won reelection in a landslide over Alf Landon. Squire 1988 provides a careful analysis of why the Digest poll failed. Most importantly, though, the failure ushered in the new scientific approach to polling and sampling, led by Paul Lazarsfeld (for a review of these developments, see Lazarsfeld 1957). Converse 1987 is the most comprehensive history of the list below; La Volpa 1991 and Igo 2007 are more targeted, examining the ways in which polling and research have combined to develop the concept of the public in modern America.

  • Converse, Jean M. 1987. Survey research in the United States: Roots and emergence, 1890–1960. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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    A detailed history of survey research written by an important survey scientist.

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  • Igo, Sarah E. 2007. The averaged American: Surveys, citizens, and the making of a mass public. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

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    This is the most important historical discussion of survey research to emerge in decades. Igo connects modern survey research with prior approaches such as the Middletown studies and the Kinsey sex studies. Modern surveys, she argues, helped develop the 20th-century democratic government and, at the same time, train citizens in how to think about the public.

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  • La Volpa, Anthony J. 1991. The birth of public opinion. Wilson Quarterly 15.1 (Winter): 46–54.

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    Modern survey research follows the development of a writing, reading, and thinking public. Public opinion developed as a way of getting beyond individuals’ private interests.

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  • Lazarsfeld, Paul. 1957. Public opinion and the classical tradition. Public Opinion Quarterly 21.1: 39–53.

    DOI: 10.1086/266685Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Lazarsfeld was the primary architect of modern scientific polling. In this article he looks back on the first two decades of polling and examines the differences between prescientific and scientific polling.

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  • Squire, Peverill. 1988. Why the 1936 Literary Digest poll failed. Public Opinion Quarterly 52.1: 125–133.

    DOI: 10.1086/269085Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The infamous Literary Digest poll laid bare the weaknesses of impressionistic, unsystematic public opinion research as had been practiced up to that point. Its spectacular failure paved the way for the development of modern, scientific polling. This article explains what went wrong: both the sample and the response rate were poorly understood, which led to incorrect estimation of the results.

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Journals

Most serious public opinion research is carried out by universities and research firms; the most rigorous standards are applied to peer-reviewed research. These three journals are the best place to find top-quality, carefully conducted public opinion research. Public Opinion Quarterly is the top journal, overall, of public opinion results and methodology. The International Journal of Public Opinion Research covers comparative and international research. Finally, Political Psychology examines the individual-level variation in public opinion and other political thinking.

Data Sources

Public opinion researchers use a wide variety of data sources, from opinion questions placed on other large-scale surveys to small-sample single polls. Many of these sources are available for other users to analyze. Among the most commonly used sources of US data are the American National Elections Studies (ANES) and the General Social Survey (GSS). For international data, the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP) and the World Values Survey provide the best-known information. The Roper Center archives thousands of smaller-scale public opinion polls for analysis.

Sampling Issues and Mode Differences

One of the keys to successful public opinion research is reaching a proper sample of respondents and asking questions in ways they are comfortable answering. Early surveys used door-to-door interviewers. As telephones became standard, most surveys transitioned to calling random numbers (random digit dialing, or RDD) or calling potential respondents from directory lists. More recently, the widespread use of mobile phones instead of land lines, privacy technologies such as caller ID, and the explosive growth of the Internet have led survey researchers to seek ways of sampling and asking questions of potential respondents who cannot be reached easily using telephone cold calling (Keeter 2007). In turn, these new ways of contacting and asking questions of respondents may affect the response rates and results of the surveys (Dillman, et al. 2009). American Association for Public Opinion Research 2011 explains how to evaluate and document these differences among surveys.

Patterns and Results

These materials provide long- and short-term findings of public opinion polling, mostly in the United States. The General Results section includes works that explain patterns of public opinion in general. The Policy Responsiveness section addresses the extent to which government policy matches public opinion results.

General Results

The most important task of public opinion research is mapping and explaining the ways Americans think about matters of public concern. These works pull together results of polls to show similarities and differences in citizens’ views. Page and Shapiro 1992 uses polls to demonstrate that Americans’ views toward social issues have remained fairly constant over the second half of the 20th century. Page and Jacobs 2009 and Persily, et al. 2008 both provide current estimates of Americans’ views on important social issues. Atkeson and Rapoport 2003 examines differences between men’s and women’s opinions, and Schuman 2008 offers a guide to ways of thinking about these results in critical and careful ways. Finally, Adorno 2010 reports on an important study in 1950s Germany that illustrates how postwar Germans thought about guilt, democracy, and other hot-button issues.

  • Adorno, Theodor W. 2010. Guilt and defense: On the legacies of National Socialism in postwar Germany. Edited and translated by Jeffrey K. Olick and Andrew J. Perrin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

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    Based on a large-scale focus group study in Germany in 1950–1951, the authors show that Germans’ attitudes about democracy, the West, and other important issues change dramatically when they are asked to discuss those views in a group.

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  • Atkeson, Lonna Rae, and Ronald B. Rapoport. 2003. The more things change the more they stay the same: Examining gender differences in political attitude expression, 1952–2000. Public Opinion Quarterly 67:495–521.

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    In general, women are more likely to answer “don’t know” to opinion questions than men. They also offer fewer responses to open-ended questions. Surprisingly, this difference did not change much over the fifty-year period the study considered, even though there were major changes in women’s role in society during those years.

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  • Page, Benjamin I., and Lawrence R. Jacobs. 2009. Class war? What Americans really think about economic inequality. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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    Americans, in general, value private enterprise and hard work but also believe there is a “pragmatic” role for government in supporting the needy.

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  • Page, Benjamin I., and Robert Y. Shapiro. 1992. The rational public: Fifty years of trends in Americans’ policy preferences. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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    This book pulls together Americans’ answers to hundreds of surveys over fifty years. In general, Americans’ views on key issues have stayed quite stable; when they’ve changed, it’s with good reason, such as when beliefs about race relations changed during the civil rights movement. The authors argue that this stability suggests that Americans have rational, stable opinions.

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  • Persily, Nathaniel, Jack Citrin, and Patrick J. Egan, eds. 2008. Public opinion and constitutional controversy. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    This book details survey responses on a range of controversial issues (abortion, taxation, and religion, for example). In addition, Persily’s introduction explains clearly the link between attitudes and survey responses.

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  • Schuman, Howard. 2008. Method and meaning in polls and surveys. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

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    This book contains several of the most important writings of one of the most important recent practitioners of survey research. Schuman does not doubt the capacity of polls to represent public opinion, but he insists that careful and innovative methods must be used to understand public opinion.

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Policy Responsiveness

If public opinion research is an important element of democracy, democratic governments should behave the way their citizens want them to. Public policy should mirror what citizens say they want in public opinion surveys. Erikson, et al. 2002 and Stimson 2004 are broad-scale surveys that explain the ways public policy is related to public opinion. Manza, et al. 2002 and Burstein 2003 get more technical: how do we know when policy is (or is not) responsive? Burstein 2006 points out that most studies of responsiveness only ask about “important” matters, and it’s quite possible that government is less responsive on less important matters. Valelly 1993 explains how government policy can shape citizens’ views on government. Lax and Phillips 2009 provides an exemplary case study of the back-and-forth between government and citizens on the issue of gay rights. Perrin and McFarland 2008 synthesizes many of these ideas to provide an overview of the relationship between policy and opinion.

  • Brooks, Clem, and Jeff Manza. 2007. Why welfare states persist: The importance of public opinion in democracies. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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    Governments that provide public benefits such as social security, health care, and pensions have been under pressure from global economics, and many analysts have expected these benefits to decrease. This book asks why they haven’t decreased, or at least not as quickly as expected. One important piece of the answer is that democracy makes governments accountable to public opinion, and the public supports continuing the policies.

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  • Burstein, Paul. 2003. The impact of public opinion on public policy: A review and an agenda. Political Research Quarterly 56:29–40.

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    In the United States, for most domestic issues, policy responds to public opinion.

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  • Burstein, Paul. 2006. Why estimates of the impact of public opinion on public policy are too high: Empirical and theoretical implications. Social Forces 84:2273–2289.

    DOI: 10.1353/sof.2006.0083Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Burstein notes that most studies of responsiveness begin with questions on which there has been a substantial amount of polling done—issues that governments are also likely to pay attention to. He argues that government may not be so responsive to lower-profile issues.

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  • Erikson, Robert S., Michael B. MacKuen, and James A. Stimson. 2002. The macro polity. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    This large-scale study demonstrates the influence of public opinion on government policy. It also explains why government is likely to listen to the views of the public on major issues.

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  • Lax, Jeffrey R., and Justin H. Phillips. 2009. Gay rights in the states: Public opinion and policy responsiveness. American Political Science Review 103.3 (August): 367–386.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0003055409990050Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The article examines support for gay rights on a state-by-state basis and demonstrates that this is an important exception to the general rule that domestic policy responds to public opinion. Even supermajority support for gay rights doesn’t guarantee that policy will follow; rather, there is an antigay policy bias as compared to public opinion.

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  • Manza, Jeff, Fay Lomax Cook, and Benjamin I. Page, eds. 2002. Navigating public opinion: Polls, policy, and the future of American democracy. New York: Oxford Univ. Press

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    This book offers a comprehensive examination of many facets of policy responsiveness: how it is measured, to what extent it exists, and how we ought to think about it. Entries are by many of the most important scholars in the field.

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  • Perrin, Andrew J., and Katherine McFarland. 2008. The sociology of political representation and deliberation. Sociology Compass 2.4: 1228–1244.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1751-9020.2008.00127.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This article considers the effects of public opinion on government policy and of government policy on public opinion. The authors argue that democratic representation involves two-way communication between citizens and the government.

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  • Stimson, James A. 2004. Tides of consent: How public opinion shapes American politics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511791024Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This book builds on the findings of Erikson, et al. 2002 to explain the mechanisms that lead from citizens’ beliefs to government policies.

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  • Valelly, Richard M. 1993. Public policy for reconnected citizenship. In Public policy for democracy. Edited by Helen Ingram and Steven Rathgeb Smith, 241–266. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

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    Valelly notes the important impact of public policy on citizens’ ideas. Some public policies may create more democratically minded citizens; others may diminish public-mindedness.

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Democracy

Public opinion is of particular importance in modern democracies because it provides a link between the preferences of individual citizens and the policy directions of their government. Indeed, from its origins, public opinion research has been framed as a way of democratizing social science to ensure that it includes the voices of the full populace. In the General Statements subsection, several sources making these claims and examining the theoretical relationship between polling and democracy appear. The Deliberation subsection focuses on polling as a kind of democratic communication and examines other ways of communicating among citizens and between citizens and governments.

General Statements

Many analysts believe that modern democracy and public opinion research go hand in hand. How do polls fit with the broader goals of democratic government and good citizenship? These works address those questions. Althaus 2003 presents one of the prominent arguments—that Americans just know so little about public matters that their opinions mean little. Bartels 2003 explains why: citizens’ beliefs and preferences change too easily to be democratically useful. In response, Manza and Brooks 2010 argues that when polls are combined we get a crucial picture of public views that can be used to evaluate democratic governance. Newport 2004 argues that these views are indispensable to modern democracy.

  • Althaus, Scott L. 2003. Collective preferences in democratic politics: Opinion surveys and the will of the people. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511610042Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    How useful are public opinion polls in determining the public mind? This question is crucial to determining how public opinion functions in democracy. Althaus offers a bleak picture: citizens display such low levels of political knowledge that their answers to questions of opinion are suspect.

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  • Bartels, Larry M. 2003. Democracy with attitudes. In Electoral democracy. Edited by Michael B. MacKuen and George Rabinowitz, 48–82. Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press.

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    While citizens do have meaningful beliefs and preferences, Bartels holds that current political psychology shows these not to be coherent or reasoned enough to form a reasonable basis for democratic governance.

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  • Manza, Jeff, and Clem Brooks. 2010. Rethinking public opinion: A manifesto for political sociology.

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    In this unpublished paper, sociology’s two best-known scholars of public opinion offer an argument that public opinion is understudied in sociology. They view polls as an important way of showing groups’ thinking and culture, and that these interests outweigh the criticism of public opinion that has emerged in sociology.

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  • Newport, Frank. 2004. Polling matters: Why leaders must listen to the wisdom of the people. New York: Warner.

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    Building upon the early work of George Gallup, whose eponymous company he now heads, Newport paints criticism of public opinion polling as antidemocratic and claims that polls are a vital and thoroughly supportive piece of a functioning democracy.

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Deliberation

Public opinion research is about communication—transmitting the public’s views to leaders and carrying their responses back. If polling isn’t enough, one possibility would be to encourage citizens to talk more about important issues. Deliberation is the process of getting citizens to discuss important matters and to listen to one another’s ideas and concerns. Deliberation might help citizens make better decisions in the voting booth; it might be a way of deciding matters without ever getting to voting; and it might be a good thing for citizens even if it doesn’t change opinions. Bryan 2004 offers a comprehensive study of modern-day New England town meetings as “real democracy.” Ackerman and Fishkin 2004, building on a long tradition of research on deliberative polling, calls for structured deliberation on matters of public importance, and Conover, et al. 2002 notes deliberative policy approaches that might improve democratic performance. Mutz 2006 offers a cautionary tale: what if deliberation comes at the expense of participation? Jacobs, et al. 2009 answers that Mutz’s trade-off seems not to actually be necessary. Schudson 1997 argues against thinking of democracy as a conversation, since it should include more conflict than conversation does. Herbst 2010 examines Schudson’s idea using the 2008–2009 American political scene as illustrations.

  • Ackerman, Bruce, and James S. Fishkin. 2004. Deliberation day. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press.

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    This book proposes a new federal holiday devoted to deliberation on major issues of the day. Based on the authors’ work with Americans deliberating in groups, the book suggests that a “deliberation day” would serve to bridge differences among Americans and help them make public decisions better.

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  • Bryan, Frank M. 2004. Real democracy: The New England town meeting and how it works. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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    For many Americans, the New England town meeting holds a special place in our imagination of democracy. This book is based on a study of how these meetings actually work. The author claims that the opportunity for citizens to talk and debate makes these town meetings an exemplary form of local democracy.

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  • Conover, Pamela Johnston, Donald D. Searing, and Ivor M. Crewe. 2002. The deliberative potential of political discussion. British Journal of Political Science 32:21–62.

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    The authors examine the kinds of discussion that tend to take place among citizens and find that most such discussion doesn’t hold up to the standards of deliberation. However, there may be some policy interventions that could change that, most prominently including better education for citizenship.

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  • Herbst, Susan. 2010. Rude democracy: Civility and incivility in American politics. Philadelphia: Temple Univ. Press.

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    Herbst reports here on several studies of modes of communication in modern politics. She contrasts the communicative styles of Barack Obama and Sarah Palin, each of whom “strategically” used civility and incivility in the 2008 election campaign. She then looks at expectations of civility among college students; the book is a thoughtful discussion of how civility and incivility play out in contemporary America.

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  • Jacobs, Lawrence R., Fay Lomax Cook, and Michael X. Delli Carpini. 2009. Talking together: Public deliberation and political participation in America. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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    Based on a national survey, the authors find that many Americans do discuss matters of importance, even when such discussions are difficult; and that doing so in public does not reduce their likelihood of participating. This is an important counterargument to Mutz 2006, and the different findings are probably due to the different kinds of political discussions the two books cover.

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  • Mutz, Diana C. 2006. Hearing the other side: Deliberative versus participatory democracy. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    What happens when people actually discuss political issues with people they disagree with? Their opinions may change—and they may be less likely to be active citizens. This book demonstrates that there is often a tradeoff between citizens who discuss and citizens who act.

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  • Schudson, Michael. 1997. Why conversation is not the soul of democracy. Critical Studies in Mass Communication 14:297–309.

    DOI: 10.1080/15295039709367020Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    In this provocative reconsideration of deliberation, Schudson claims that it is disagreement and conflict that make democratic communication worthwhile. Conversation—calm, careful listening to others—is very different, and Schudson argues that we should expect public opinion to be better served through frank, emotional, conflictual disagreement.

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Psychology of Survey Response

A survey is only as good as the individual answers from individual respondents that make up its data. The psychology of survey response examines how citizens think about their responses and how the interactions they have with interviewers help shape what they say. Tourangeau, et al. 2000 is an overview of psychological thinking about survey responses. A much shorter, synthetic overview of these ideas is in Schwarz 2007. Schaeffer and Presser 2003 applies these findings to the question of how to design and implement questionnaires for survey research. Berinsky 1999 is a useful example of research about how respondents are thinking when they answer questions and what that process may mean for the results. Question Wording and Framing showcases studies of how the specific ways questions are asked influence the outcomes of surveys. Interviewer Characteristics provides information on studies of how the person conducting the survey interview may influence the responses. Survey Experiments explains the most recent ways of evaluating the effects of surveys on public opinion by systematically varying the survey to reveal the underlying commonalities. Finally, Focus Groups looks at one of the most popular alternatives to polling: group-based, structured interviews designed to elicit ideas and preferences from group participants.

  • Berinsky, Adam J. 1999. The two faces of public opinion. American Journal of Political Science 43:1209–1230.

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    Because public opinion polls are often interested in “hot button” issues, respondents may not be willing to offer their genuine opinions. This is called social desirability bias. Berinsky shows that this and similar biases may account for polls showing that Americans are more politically tolerant than they seem to be in practice.

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  • Schaeffer, Nora Cate, and Stanley Presser. 2003. The science of asking questions. Annual Review of Sociology 29:65–88.

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    This review provides an up-to-date summary of systematic approaches to scientific polling.

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  • Schwarz, Norbert. 2007. Cognitive aspects of survey methodology. Applied Cognitive Psychology 21:277–287.

    DOI: 10.1002/acp.1340Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This article provides an overview of the ways in which cognition (the psychology of learning and understanding) matters for how respondents answer questions.

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  • Tourangeau, Roger, Lance J. Rips, and Kenneth Rasinski. 2000. The psychology of survey response. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    This text contains current information on how people consider and engage their responses to survey questions.

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Question Wording and Framing

What questions are asked, and how, of course matters to how they are answered. Approaches to the wording of questions are called “framing effects.” Chong and Druckman 2007 explains what we expect framing to do and why. Edelman 1993, in a classic argument, claims that we should mistrust poll results because framing matters so much. Druckman 2001 disagrees, noting that while frames matter, they matter in specific and predictable ways, suggesting that the underlying attitudes are stable. Entman and Herbst 2001 argues that framing makes public opinion a “fiction,” albeit a useful one. Conlon and McFarland 2010 shows that a minor change in wording of a question on same-sex marriage can make a significant difference in the results; Smith 1987 shows much the same thing with respect to welfare.

  • Chong, Dennis, and James N. Druckman. 2007. Framing theory. Annual Review of Political Science 10:103–126.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.polisci.10.072805.103054Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    One of the important effects of survey interviews on respondents’ views is what they think the question is about—that is, how the question is framed. This review article provides an up-to-date consideration of the effects of framing on survey responses.

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  • Conlon, Ian, and Katherine McFarland. 2010. Concrete language and sexual prejudice: The effect of question wording on opinion of same-sex marriage. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, Atlanta, 13 August.

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    Conlon and McFarland show that a small change in the wording of a question about same-sex marriage produces a significant, though small, change in public support for same-sex marriage.

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  • Druckman, James N. 2001. The implications of framing effects for citizen competence. Political Behavior 23:225–256.

    DOI: 10.1023/A:1015006907312Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Druckman argues that the existence of framing effects does not imply that citizens are “incompetent” to answer key questions. Rather, responses to frames are generally systematic and reasonable.

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  • Edelman, Murray. 1993. Contestable categories and public opinion. Political Communication 10.3: 231–242.

    DOI: 10.1080/10584609.1993.9962981Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Edelman argues that, since citizens’ responses can be molded by how questions are framed, we should be skeptical of citizens’ reported views on important issues.

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  • Entman, Robert M., and Susan Herbst. 2001. Reframing public opinion as we have known it. In Mediated politics: Communication in the future of democracy. Edited by W. Lance Bennett and Robert M. Entman. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    Entman and Herbst present a critical view of public opinion, calling it a “useful fiction” because of the role of media and government in framing questions to produce specific answers.

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  • Smith, Tom W. 1987. That which we call welfare by any other name would smell sweeter: An analysis of the impact of question wording on response patterns. Public Opinion Quarterly 51:75–83.

    DOI: 10.1086/269015Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Asking respondents about “welfare” makes the responses much more hostile than asking them about “the poor,” showing again that underlying attitudes can be molded through small changes in wording.

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Interviewer Characteristics

Because most survey interviews are interactions between an interviewer and a respondent (Houtkoop-Steenstra 2000), respondents are often trying to find hidden meanings and determine what the interviewer expects. Respondents’ ideas about the race (Schaeffer 1980), gender (Kane and Macaulay 1993), and other characteristics of the interviewer may therefore affect the answers they give, particularly when the interview is about one of these characteristics. Furthermore, the answers people give may not reflect their actual or likely behavior (Pager and Quillian 2005).

  • Houtkoop-Steenstra, Hanneke. 2000. Interaction and the standardized survey interview: The living questionnaire. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511489457Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This book carefully applies tools of conversation analysis to the interactions between interviewers and respondents. It provides a theoretical framework for understanding why different interviewers and interview situations might produce different results.

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  • Kane, Emily W., and Laura J. Macaulay. 1993. Interviewer gender and gender attitudes. Public Opinion Quarterly 57.1: 1–28.

    DOI: 10.1086/269352Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Certain gender-related questions show marked differences in responses based on whether the interviewer is male or female.

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  • Pager, Devah, and Lincoln Quillian. 2005. Walking the talk? What employers say versus what they do. American Sociological Review 70.3 (June): 355–380.

    DOI: 10.1177/000312240507000301Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    In an innovative experimental study, Pager and Quillian reveal that employers claim they are significantly more willing to hire African American and ex-offender applicants than they actually are when offered the opportunity. This raises the possibility that some expressed views do not reflect respondents’ actual beliefs or tendencies.

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  • Schaeffer, Nora Cate. 1980. Evaluating race-of-interviewer effects in a national survey. Sociological Methods and Research 8.4: 400–419.

    DOI: 10.1177/004912418000800403Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Using the General Social Survey, this article demonstrates substantial differences between respondents based on whether the interviewer was white or African American. The article suggests that these differences justify recommending that the race of interviewers be matched to that of respondents; however, Houtkoop-Steenstra 2000 would suggest that neither matching nor failing to match is inherently more accurate.

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Survey Experiments

One way of isolating the effect of a survey is to ask the same questions in different ways, or of different groups of people. Survey experiments are designed to figure out how surveys shape the responses of the people surveyed (Sniderman and Grob 1996). Results can then be analyzed to understand what the underlying attitudes are. Each of the remaining items presents the results of one or more survey experiments. Althaus and Kim 2006 shows that attention to specific media can change respondents’ answers. Bartels 2002 shows that even the order in which questions are asked can make a big difference. Bishop, et al. 1986 presents the answers to question about issues that don’t even exist. And Sniderman and Piazza 1993 shows that answers about race are deeply dependent on how and when the questions are asked.

  • Althaus, Scott L., and Young Mie Kim. 2006. Priming effects in complex information environments: Reassessing the impact of news discourse on presidential approval. Journal of Politics 68:960–976.

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    Short-term priming by news media can produce important changes in respondents’ views on major issues.

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  • Bartels, Larry M. 2002. Question order and declining faith in elections. Public Opinion Quarterly 66:67–79.

    DOI: 10.1086/338349Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Bartels argues that changes in the order in which questions were asked on a major survey is to blame for what seems like a decline in voters’ faith in elections.

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  • Bishop, George F., Alfred J. Tuchfarber, and Robert W. Oldendick. 1986. Opinions on fictitious issues: The pressure to answer survey questions. Public Opinion Quarterly 50.2: 240–250.

    DOI: 10.1086/268978Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Sometimes respondents offer opinions on issues that don’t exist: legislation that is made up, for example. Why? The authors suggest that citizens feel pressured to offer answers and assume that interviewers are sincere in their requests.

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  • Sniderman, Paul M., and Douglas B. Grob. 1996. Innovations in experimental design in attitude surveys. Annual Review of Sociology 22:377–399.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.soc.22.1.377Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This review provides a comprehensive overview of ways of using experiments to understand how surveys shape respondents’ opinions.

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  • Sniderman, Paul M., and Thomas Piazza. 1993. The scar of race. Cambridge, MA: Belknap.

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    In an important survey experiment, Sniderman and Piazza show that white Americans’ views on race relations changed depending on whether they were first asked about affirmative action or not.

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Focus Groups

Since opinions are really social in nature—they emerge from individual citizens’ interactions with others, both directly and through the media—one way of getting at their formation and construction is through focus groups. These are arranged small-group discussions in which a discussion leader or moderator guides the discussion and records the ways different people and different groups respond, both to the questions and to other members of the group. Merton, et al. 1956 is the work that first presented the idea of focused interviewing, both individually and in groups. One of the earliest large-scale uses of this technique was the Gruppenexperiment, carried out in Germany in 1950–1951; Perrin and Olick 2011 presents the results of that study. Gamson 1992 and Perrin 2006 emphasize the group nature of focus groups as a way to transcend the individual as an opinion holder. Lezaun 2007 critiques traditional focus groups as a method and argues for an approach more similar to Gamson and Perrin’s.

  • Gamson, William A. 1992. Talking politics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    In this innovative study, sociologist Gamson held group discussions about important issues of the day. The groups demonstrated much more sophisticated thinking than was evident in public opinion polls of the time. Gamson argues that this explains why citizens can become active in social movements and other activities, as communication with others increases their social concern.

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  • Lezaun, Javier. 2007. A market of opinions: The political epistemology of focus groups. Sociological Review 55.S2 (October): 130–151.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-954X.2007.00733.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Lezaun studies the accepted practice of everyday focus groups and argues that many practitioners fail to take seriously the group nature of opinion. Instead, they impose an ideal of communication in which each member of the group has a firm opinion and these enter into the discussion through calm conversation. Lezaun explains how this ideal is not appropriate given the social environments of the groups.

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  • Merton, Robert K., Marjorie Fiske, and Patricia L. Kendall. 1956. The focused interview: A manual of problems and procedures. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

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    This book pioneered the idea of focusing discussion, although it is just as applicable to individual as to group interviews. The book suggests providing the interviewees with a common “stimulus” (a newspaper article, product, or speech, for example) and understanding the discussion that follows as the individual and group response to that stimulus.

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  • Perrin, Andrew J. 2006. Citizen speak: The democratic imagination in American life. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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    Based on small-group discussions about local and national issues, Perrin demonstrates that the group itself (what Perrin calls a “political microculture”) is an important source of citizenship ideas. Groups are not just collections of individuals, but have their own effects on public opinion.

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  • Perrin, Andrew J., and Jeffrey K. Olick, trans. and eds. 2011. Group experiment and other writings: The Frankfurt school on public opinion in postwar Germany. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

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    In the years following World War II, Germans were polled about their attitudes toward major issues of the day, with generally positive results. The Frankfurt school of social scientists disbelieved these poll results, and used a new focus group technique to evaluate the “potential” for negative attitudes in the population. This book contains the results of that investigation as well as important theoretical reasons for preferring the focus group approach.

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Social Theory

Underlying any research on public opinion must be a theory as to the relationship between the public and individuals, and between the beliefs of those individuals and how they are related to public opinion in general. The General Theories subsection includes works that explore these questions in a general way. Critiques includes material highlighting the failures and shortcomings of public opinion research. Finally, Reactivity and Performativity includes works that try to understand the interplay between polling and public opinion by examining how citizens understand and react to polls. Lee 2002, Peer 1992, and White 2009 each consider reasons for suspicion of polling results and offer ways to guard against the threats to validity these reasons entail.

  • Lee, Taeku. 2002. The sovereign status of survey data. In Navigating public opinion: Polls, policy, and the future of American democracy. Edited by Jeff Manza, Fay Lomax Cook, and Benjamin I. Page, 290–312. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    Lee argues that too much trust is put in survey results. He suggests that we add to our understanding of public opinion by using constituents’ mail to legislators as a measure of real public opinion.

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  • Peer, Limor. 1992. The practice of opinion polling as a disciplinary mechanism: A Foucauldian perspective. International Journal of Public Opinion Research 4.3: 230–242.

    DOI: 10.1093/ijpor/4.3.230Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Building on the work of Michel Foucault, Peer believes that public opinion polling is a “discipline” that shapes respondents’ views of their own citizenship.

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  • White, Jonathan. 2009. The social theory of mass politics. Journal of Politics 71.1 (January): 96–112.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0022381608090075Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This article brings social and sociological theory to bear on the study of contemporary politics in general, with specific attention to public opinion.

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General Theories

Probably the most influential theoretical approach, in Zaller 1992, suggests a way of understanding the link between people and polling results that is both psychologically valid and allows for using poll results scientifically. Sanders 1999 provides a clear, logical argument for understanding polling results as democratically important. Schudson 2006 argues that consumer behavior and polling results are similar—and that that’s a good thing. Jepperson 1992, a dissertation, evaluates what it means to hold an opinion in different countries and levels of development.

  • Jepperson, Ronald. 1992. National scripts: The varying construction of individualism across the modern nation-states. PhD diss., Yale Univ.

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    In a wide-ranging study of survey responses across countries, this dissertation shows that what it means to hold an opinion differs greatly in different countries. Survey results therefore don’t get at what individuals authentically believe but how their beliefs fit in with the beliefs of others in their countries.

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  • Sanders, Lynn M. 1999. Democratic politics and survey research. Philosophy of the Social Sciences 29:248–280.

    DOI: 10.1177/004839319902900205Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This article argues that the proponents of survey research as a democratic asset are right. Based on a theoretical investigation, Sanders argues that the representational advantages of survey research are worth the tradeoff in reliability because of the form of survey research.

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  • Schudson, Michael. 2006. The troubling equivalence of citizen and consumer. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 608:193–204.

    DOI: 10.1177/0002716206291967Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Many of the criticisms of public opinion research hold that the closed-choice format of surveys “reduces” citizenship behavior to consumer behavior; it makes having an opinion basically the same as choosing a product. Schudson argues that this criticism is wrong, in large part because many citizens put more energy into decisions about what products to buy than about what, and whom, to vote for.

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  • Zaller, John R. 1992. The nature and origins of mass opinion. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    This is the most important theoretical statement of how public opinion works. Criticizing the dominant “file-drawer” view (in which citizens are assumed to have opinions on everything, just waiting to be tapped), Zaller argues that citizens have dispositions that give rise to specific responses in specific situations. These responses can then be combined into a picture of the population’s attitudes.

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Criticisms

Since the beginning of the practice of opinion research, social scientists and public figures alike have questioned its validity and wisdom. This continues even today, with politicians routinely claiming that they do not care what the polls say. Early on, Blumer 1948 argued that polling failed to include the social contexts of individuals and was therefore false. Later, French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu picked up a similar argument (Bourdieu 1979, Bourdieu 2005) in a modern setting. Ginsberg 1986, by a political scientist, argues that public opinion is mostly a way of framing social policy for the needs of the state, not of true representation; Herbst 1998 provides some evidence for this position, since political actors often pick and choose opinion indicators they find useful. Adorno 2005 is a lecture given by the eminent critical theorist Theodor Adorno on the relationship between public opinion research and modern society; like Perrin and Olick 2011, it contains many of these critiques written from the perspective of active opinion researchers in the 1950s; they are based on data as well as theory.

  • Adorno, Theodor W. 2005. Opinion research and publicness. Translated by Andrew J. Perrin and Lars Jarkko. Sociological Theory 23.1 (March): 116–123.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.0735-2751.2005.00245.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    In a lecture given in 1964, Adorno praises public opinion research but argues that it is as important to understand how surveys work in society as it is to study the results of those surveys.

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  • Blumer, Herbert. 1948. Public opinion and public opinion polling. American Sociological Review 13.5: 542–549.

    DOI: 10.2307/2087146Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Blumer claims that public opinion polling is, essentially, not social enough. It fails to capture the ways respondents are part of social life, members of groups, and susceptible to power and influence from others.

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  • Bourdieu, Pierre. 1979. Public opinion does not exist. In Communication and class struggle. Vol. 1, Capitalism and imperialism. Edited by Armand Mattelart and Seth Siegelaub. By Pierre Bourdieu, 124–130. New York: International General.

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    A very provocative piece in which French sociological theorist Pierre Bourdieu claims that public opinion does not exist in pure form; it is created by the systems put in place to measure it, such as opinion polls.

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  • Bourdieu, Pierre. 2005. The mystery of ministry: From particular wills to the general will. In Pierre Bourdieu and democratic politics: The mystery of ministry. Edited by Loïc Wacquant, 55–63. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

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    Following up on his famous article “Public Opinion Does Not Exist” (Bourdieu 1979), here Pierre Bourdieu elaborates on how the public opinion poll serves to create a general public will by connecting the particular concerns of each citizen. This is a “mysterious” property of polling practices.

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  • Ginsberg, Benjamin. 1986. The captive public: How mass opinion promotes state power. New York: Basic Books.

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    The modern state, this book argues, creates its power by manipulating the opinions and views of citizens and then using their support to further its own needs. Public opinion research is one piece of this process, Ginsberg argues. Most prominently, public opinion polling means that having an opinion is passive. In contrast, without public opinion polls, having an opinion is a more active, civic process.

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  • Herbst, Susan. 1998. Reading public opinion: How political actors view the democratic process. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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    In a major qualitative study of political elites in Illinois, Herbst shows that politicians think and worry a lot about public opinion, but not necessarily about public opinion polls. Rather, they use information from many different sources to figure out what the public is thinking and make decisions accordingly.

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  • Perrin, Andrew J., and Jeffrey K. Olick, trans. and eds. 2011. Group experiment and other writings: The Frankfurt school on public opinion in postwar Germany. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

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    Based on the authors’ extensive theoretical experience and a major focus group study in postwar Germany, this book contains a thorough critique of the practice of public opinion polling. Many of its critiques are similar to those that others introduced since the book’s original 1955 publication. In addition, this book contains its own public opinion study that demonstrates the usefulness of its theoretical approach.

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Reactivity and Performativity

One of the key theoretical findings of social theory about public opinion is that citizens’ opinions are reactive or even performative. That they are reactive means that citizens may change or create opinions in response to being asked about them—so surveys may not just measure the opinions citizens actually have but may also change those opinions. That they are performative means that public opinion polling itself may help form opinions that make polling truer. If people didn’t hold opinions that could be easily tallied before polling emerged, they may do so once polling becomes commonplace as they learn what kind of a citizen is expected by the new techniques. Beniger 1992 synthesizes the three main theoretical approaches to reactivity, showing that the three have major points of agreement. Tilly 1983 argues that publics emerge in part from the formats people have to air their concerns, a claim echoed with data and theory in Bennett 1993 and Marres 2005, the latter of which reconsiders the Lippmann–Dewey debate of the early 20th century. Callon 2007 describes the concept of performativity; although the article is about economics, much of it is directly applicable to public opinion research as well. Callon, et al. 2009 carries out that application, bringing the theory of performativity to questions of democracy. Osborne and Rose 1999 shows that performativity is not necessarily a problem for public opinion research; instead, the authors consider it a technology contributed by social science to modern society.

  • Beniger, James R. 1992. The impact of polling on public opinion: Reconciling Foucault, Habermas, and Bourdieu. International Journal of Public Opinion Research 4.3: 204–219.

    DOI: 10.1093/ijpor/4.3.204Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Three major European social theorists—Michel Foucault, Jürgen Habermas, and Pierre Bourdieu—have all claimed in various ways that polling impacts public opinion. This article compares their approaches and highlights their common findings.

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  • Bennett, W. Lance. 1993. Constructing publics and their opinions. Political Communication 10:101–120.

    DOI: 10.1080/10584609.1993.9962970Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    One of the ways citizens respond to public opinion polling is by identifying themselves in the results of polls. This forms them into a public, not just a collection of individuals.

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  • Callon, Michel. 2007. What does it mean to say that economics is performative? In Do economists make markets? On the performativity of economics. Edited by Donald MacKenzie, Fabian Muniesa, and Lucia Siu, 311–357. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

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    This is the clearest statement of the theory of performativity—that devices like public opinion polling may set up expectations that make them truer than they were when they were first created. Although this article is based on the performativity of economics, it is applicable to public opinion as well.

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  • Callon, Michel, Pierre Lascoumes, and Yannick Barthe.2009. Acting in an uncertain world: An essay on technical democracy. Translated by Graham Burchell. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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    This sophisticated book argues for thinking about representation in a new way, and therefore about public opinion itself in a new way. Following ideas about performativity and reactivity, the authors argue for thinking about democracy as a set of practices that citizens adopt in relation to technologies.

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  • Marres, Noortje. 2005. Issues spark a public into being: A key but often forgotten point of the Lippmann-Dewey debate. In Making things public: Atmospheres of democracy. Edited by Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel, 208–217. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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    During the famous Lippmann–Dewey debates, both of the famous debaters accepted a key point: that publics are not naturally occurring groups. Rather, they “spring” into being when some matter of concern brings people together. This article explores that claim and its importance to current public opinion.

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  • Osborne, Thomas, and Nikolas Rose. 1999. Do the social sciences create phenomena? The example of public opinion research. British Journal of Sociology 50.3 (September): 367–396.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-4446.1999.00367.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Performativity and reactivity are often seen as negative things about a theory—as reasons to doubt that theory’s ideas. In this article, Osborne and Rose argue that this is wrong. One of the signs of a mature science, they argue, is that it creates objects to study; social science’s object is public opinion.

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  • Tilly, Charles. 1983. Speaking your mind without elections, surveys, or social movements. Public Opinion Quarterly 47.4 (Winter): 461–478.

    DOI: 10.1086/268805Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This article asks readers to imagine what it would be like to hold opinions if we didn’t have the various technologies we use to represent them: elections, surveys, and social movements. In each case, Tilly shows, opinion would be substantively different.

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LAST MODIFIED: 07/27/2011

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780199756384-0042

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