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Developed by German survey and communication researcher Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann (1916–2010), the spiral of silence theory describes collective opinion formation and societal decision- making in situations where the issue being debated is controversial and morally loaded. The theory is one of the most frequently cited and debated to emerge from the field of communication studies during the latter half of the twentieth century (Donsbach et al. 2014).
With the spiral of silence theory, Noelle- Neumann attempts to describe how public opinion functions. The term ‘public opinion’ refers to opinions or behavior that can be displayed or expressed in public without running the risk of social isolation or, in some cases, that even must be displayed to avoid the danger of isolation. Noelle-Neumann views public opinion as a form of social control that ultimately applies to everyone, regardless of social class. She states that this control is apparent in many areas of life, ranging from controversial political issues to fashion, morals, and values. Noelle-Neumann’s understanding of public opinion stands in contrast to another conception that views public opinion as the result of rational debate among an educated elite that is of crucial importance for the state.
The theory comprises the following key elements: People experience fear of isolation. For this reason, people constantly monitor the behavior of others in their surroundings, attentively noting which opinions and modes of behavior meet with public approval or disapproval. But people do not only observe their environment. They also issue their own threats of isolation via what they say and do, via behavior such as knitting their brow, laughing at someone, etc. These are signals that individuals perceive, and that show people which of their opinions meet with their fellow humans’ approval and which do not. Since most people fear isolation, they tend to refrain from publicly stating their position when they perceive that this would attract such threats of isolation. Conversely, those who sense that their opinion meets with approval tend to voice their convictions fearlessly. Speaking out loud enhances the threat of isolation directed at those who think differently. It reinforces their sense of standing alone with their opinion and thus augments their tendency to conceal their opinion in public. A spiraling process begins, whereby the dominant camp becomes ever louder and more self-confident, while the other camp falls increasingly silent.
This process does not occur at all times and in all situations, but only in connection with issues that have a strong moral component. The process is not set in motion if there is no underlying moral foundation implying that those who think differently are not merely stupid, but bad. This moral element is what gives public opinion power, allowing it to raise the threat of isolation that sets the spiral of silence in motion. Only controversial issues can trigger a spiral of silence. The news media can significantly influence the spiral-of-silence process. If the majority of the media take the same side in a morally charged controversy, they exert a substantial, presumably even decisive influence on the direction that the spiral of silence takes.
Public opinion serves as an instrument of social control, indirectly insuring social cohesion. Whenever there is especially strong integrative pressure in a society, as found in connection with the spiral of silence, this generally indicates that the issue or controversy that triggered the spiral of silence poses a particularly great threat to social cohesion. In extreme cases, the spiral of silence culminates in a situation where certain topics can either only be broached using a specific vocabulary (political correctness) or cannot be mentioned at all (taboo), lest people wish to be the target of extremely harsh signals of social isolation (Noelle-Neumann 1993).
- Bodor, T. (2012). The issue of timing and opinion congruity in spiral of silence research: Why does research suggest limited support for the theory? International Journal of Public Opinion Research, 24, 269–286.
- Donsbach, W., Salmon, C. T., & Tsfati, Y. (eds.) (2014). The spiral of silence. New perspectives on communication and public opinion. New York: Routledge.
- Noelle-Neumann, E. (1974). The spiral of silence: A theory of public opinion. Journal of Communication, 24, 43–51.
- Noelle-Neumann, E. (1993). The spiral of silence: Public opinion – our social skin, 2nd edn. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Scheufele, D. A. & Moy, P. (2000). Twenty-five years of the spiral of silence: A conceptual review and empirical outlook. International Journal of Public Opinion Research, 12, 3–28.
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