In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Public Opinion

  • Introduction
  • Foundational Ideas
  • General Overviews
  • Research History
  • Journals
  • Data Sources
  • Sampling Issues and Mode Differences

Sociology Public Opinion
Andrew Perrin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 October 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 July 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0042


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.

    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.

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

    DOI: 10.1086/265298

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

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

    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.

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

    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).

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

    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.

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

    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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