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Three distinct perspectives emerge in the literature on public opinion. From the individual level perspective public opinion is conceived as an aggregation of the preferences of a group of individuals. At the collective level public opinion is an emergent product of debate and discussion. Public opinion is also defined as a communication process that allows people to organize into publics within which opinions are formed and which enable them to exercise their influence.
Within these perspectives public opinion can be seen as rational or as a form of social control. In the rational model of public opinion, people are understood to develop their opinions during a public debate by listening to and presenting arguments in which their opinions are rationally sound judgments based on thoughtful consideration. Public opinion is also conceived, however, as a form of social control, where its role is to promote social integration and to ensure that there is a sufficient level of consensus on which actions and decisions may be based. Exposure to the media and participation in discussions allow people to assess the extent of consensus and controversy. It is this mutual awareness of the extent of consensus and controversy which ensures that public opinion can act as a social force.
To gauge public opinion one can attend to the mass media, communicate with colleagues and citizens, conduct focus groups, and monitor the behavior of citizens. The opinion poll, however, is the most ubiquitous and authoritative measurement instrument. Opinion polling has changed the essential nature of public opinion itself. The assumption implicit in all polls that everyone might have an opinion and that all opinions are equally important creates an impression of public opinion as the aggregate of opinions of individuals. In some situations one might even say that opinion polls have replaced public opinion. When heeding public opinion, politicians increasingly turn to opinion polls in order to validate and defend their positions on the issues of the day. This phenomenon is included in the following definition of public opinion (De Boer & ‘t Hart, 2007): ”Public opinion is the collection of opinions about an issue within a public, which are expressed in communication and/or the opinions about the issue, which are ascribed to the public” (p. 49).
- De Boer, C & ‘t Hart, H. (2007). Publieke opinie (Public Opinion). Boom, Amsterdam.