It doesn’t has a head, feet or body yet it has the potential to judge you, criticise you make you or destroy you. It is called ‘Public Opinion’. The word opinion carries in itself the meanings of independence, autonomy, ability to make judgements or make choices. The word public comes from Latin and means ‘people’. It also conatins the meaning of ‘accessible to everyone’. But how public opinion is developed and what influences it? This becomes very important in situations like election compaigns. Is it the news papers or TV channels or Facebook books that determoine it? It is not a factual information that can be obtained from a book, nor it captured in the form of a picture. Social scientist Herbest called it a social construction, a soical phenomenon much like money, families, government, wars and Nobel Prizes. Krippendoff K writes “Saying that the public is concerned about something, favors something, is against something, decides something, likes to hear about something, supports something, has attitudes about something, expresses its beliefs, and acts on them personifies the public.”
Public opinion is differentiated from private opinion. Some public sociologists for example Gabriel Trade considered Public as conversation that occurs in coffee houses and salons. Jugrgen Habermas defines it as “’public sphere’ […] (as) a domain of our social life in which such a thing as public opinion can be formed. Access to the public sphere is open to all citizens. A portion of the public sphere is constituted in every conversation in which private persons come together to form a public. When a public is large, this kind of communication requires certain means of dissemination and influence; today newspapers and periodicals, radio and television are the media of the public sphere”. Krippendoff K writes that Habermas’ conceives of public opinion as resulting from rational deliberations, not limited by power relationships that would constrain free expression. – How different their notions are from metaphorical talk in everyday life!. On the other hand some authors believe that everyone knows what public opinion is and it doesn’t need defining.
When it comes to understanding what Public does with public opinions the following excerpts are worthy of note from Klaus Krippendoff’s essay entitled “The Socail
Cnstruction of Public opinion”
There are public opinion polls that are proprietary and others that are published. Both affect, create, or construct public opinion but rather differently. Proprietary polls, to start with them, are paid for by institutions with strategic interest in public opinion. Proprietary polling results are effective to the extent they inform the communicative efforts of their sponsors to change undesirable polling results into desirable ones. I speak of “polling results,” not of public opinion, because what ordinary people do with messages that are aimed at changing their minds is an empirical question that cannot be answered by further polling. There are numerous methods that go beyond interviewing people; content analysis, for one; psychological experiments, for another, evaluating the
persuasiveness of appeals. There are also ways of measuring correlates of public opinion changes – consumer spending, attendance in rallies, and the size of demonstrations. But if a sponsor acts on proprietary polling results, to assess the effectiveness of their interventions, these effects must be translated back into polling results. Hence, at least one important measure of the effects of actions taken on accounts of proprietary polling results is the change in future proprietary polling results – regardless of what they mean. Here ‘public opinion’ appears in a recursion. Interested parties change present polling results into future polling results. Polls feed on themselves without break.
Published polling results, by contrast, can affect public opinion on three levels; all three are involved in another recursion:
1) They can inform members of the public about how pollsters and interested parties see the distribution of opinions in a population. Published polls often are the only clues for people to come to know about the opinions of others beyond their ability to communicate with them directly.
2) They can provide members of the public the choice of accepting polling results as adequate accounts of a public beyond direct experiences, or reject them completely or in parts, whatever the reason maybe. Since pollsters’ reputation is at stake here, citations of the scientific methodology used in developing their findings is the most common rhetorical devices that pollsters have available.
3) Once accepted, polling results can also enable members of the public to locate themselves within the distribution of published opinions and act according to the place at which they find themselves in that distribution. Public actions in response to knowing one’s location within a distribution of opinions are not so simple. For example, when finding to be in the majority, people may enjoy being in that place, see no reason to do anything, to vote, for example, and might by this abstinence cause public opinion to shift its distribution. When in the minority, people may become energized to convert opponents in their community. They may also make an effort to blend into the majority by adopting their opinions, or become silenced by the apparent
hopelessness of the situation as published. The latter is what Noelle Neumann (1993) theorized as ‘spiral of silence.’ But fitting oneself into a published
distribution has far broader implications.
In either case, biased or not, addressing true public concerns or not, published polling results have a good chance of entering the conversations of those represented
therein and thereby become part of public opinion. Polling results that nobody cares to publish, read, discuss, or act upon simply are ineffective. Polling
results that compel people into accepting them become self-evidently real.
Obviously, the mass media participate decisively in the formation of public opinion – not because of their reporting on unexpected happenings or issues for individual
attention or public scrutiny (their agenda-setting function); not because they cater to very large audiences, (homogenizing them); not because they are the means
of industry’s manipulatory efforts (generating income); but because they assertedly report on the concerns of people that ordinarily cannot be reached conversationally,
people that are just like those who expose themselves to the published polls. Polls thus expand the public beyond individual reach. The scientific arguments for
this expansion tend to mystify many, but which news media to trust and therefore attend to does not. By making polling results plausible to mass audiences, the media
participate in constructing public opinion, while giving the impression of merely reporting it.
The foregoing leads to the conclusion that public opinion does not exist as public opinion researchers claim it does but might be recognized in the effects of publishing the polling results and the efforts by various economically and politically motivated attempts to alter them. Even the most neutral social theories can affect what they theorize when reentering the process they claim to theorize (cf. Krippendorff 1996). This recursion is evident here as well.
All social constructions are constituted in the understanding that their constituents have of it and enact. Public opinion is no exception. It is constituted in concepts of public opinion for which numerous institutions compete – advertising, public relations, the mass media, politics, journalism, and last but not least the science of polling – each pursuing its own interests in shaping the concept of public opinion in its favour, and each relying on pollsters, social researchers, and relevant media to record and publicize it. These competing interest in the public result in a medley of what polling agencies are paid to say, what academic opinion researchers attempt to generalize, what the mass media deem worthy of publication, but, most importantly, of what the multiplicity of citizens discuss among themselves, including about distant others who are expected to engage in similar public discourse. As such, public opinion appears as a self-organizing system that preserves the uneasy network of conceptions of itself – not necessarily shared and certainly not fixed – within a boundary that is continuously perturbed
by unexpected (truly new) happenings and by political opposition to this very institutionalization.
Thus, I am suggesting that public opinion should not be separated from its constituents, from the deliberations among ordinary people, pollsters, politicians,
and social scientists about what public opinion is for them. It is important to recognize the socially-politically constructed nature of the concept.
Acknowledgement: The excerpts and simplified salient points are from essay by Klaus Krippendorff and is not my original work.