Social Organization

Chapter 12: The Theory of Public Opinion

Charles Horton Cooley

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Public opinion is no mere aggregate of separate individual judgments, but an organization, a cooperative product of communication and reciprocal influence. It maybe as different from the sum of what the individuals could have thought out in separation as a ship built by a hundred men is from a hundred boats each built by one man.

A group "makes up its mind" in very much the same manner r that the individual makes up his. The latter must give time and attention to the question, search his consciousness for pertinent ideas and sentiments, and work them together into a whole, before he knows what his real thought about it is. In the case of a nation the same thing must take place, only on a larger scale. Each individual must make up his mind as before, but in doing 90 he has to deal not only with what was already in his thought or memory, but with fresh ideas that flow in from

(122) others whose minds are also aroused. Every one who has any fact, or thought, or feeling, which he thinks is unknown, or insufficiently regarded, tries to impart it; and thus not only one mind but all minds are searched for pertinent material, which is poured into the general stream of thought for each one to use as he can. In this manner the minds in a communicating group become a single organic whole. Their unity is not one of identity, but of life and action, a crystallization of diverse but related ideas.

It is not at all necessary that there should be agreement; the essential thing is a certain ripeness and stability of thought resulting from attention and discussion. There may be quite as much difference of opinion as there was before, but the differences now existing are comparatively intelligent and lasting. People know what they really think about the matter, and what other people think. Measures, platforms, candidates, creeds and other symbols have been produced which serve to express and assist cooperation and to define opposition. There has come to be a relatively complete organization of thought, to which each individual or group contributes in its own peculiar way.

Take, for instance, the state of opinion in the United States regarding slavery at the outbreak of the civil war. No general agreement had been reached; but the popular mind had become organized with reference to the matter, which had been turned over and regarded from all points of view, by all parts of the community, until a certain ripeness regarding it had been reached; revealing in this

(123) case a radical conflict of thought between the North and the South, and much local diversity in both sections;

One who would understand public opinion should distinguish clearly between a true or mature opinion and a popular impression. The former requires earnest attention and discussion for a considerable time, and when reached is significant, even if mistaken. It rarely exists regarding matters of temporary interest, and current talk or print is a most uncertain index of it. A popular impression, on the other hand, is facile, shallow, transient, with that fickleness and fatuity that used to be ascribed to the popular mind in general. It is analogous to the unconsidered views and utterances of an individual, and the more one studies it the less seriously he will take it. It may happen that ninety-nine men in a hundred hold opinions to-day contrary to those they will hold a month hence—partly because they have not yet searched their own minds, partly because the few who have really significant and well-grounded ideas have not had time to impress them upon the rest.

It is not unreasonable, then, to combine a very slight regard for most of what passes as public opinion with much confidence in the soundness of an aroused, mature, organic social judgment.

There is a widespread, but as I believe a fallacious, idea that the public thought or action must in some way express the working of an average or commonplace mind, must be some kind of a mean between the higher and lower intelligences making up the group. It would be

(124) more correct to say that it is representative, meaning by this that the preponderant feeling of the group seeks definite and effectual expression through individuals specially competent to give it such expression. Take for instance the activities of one of our colleges in inter collegiate athletics or debates. What belongs to the group at large is a vague desire to participate and excel in such competitions; but in realizing itself this desire seeks as its agents the best athletes or debaters that are to be found A little common-sense and observation will show that the J expression of a group is nearly always superior, for the purpose in hand, to the average capacity of its members.

I do not mean morally superior, but simply more effective, in a direction determined by the prevalent feeling. If a mob is in question, the brutal nature, for the time-being ascendant, may act through the most brutal men in the group; and in like manner a money-making enterprise is apt to put forward the shrewdest agents it can find, without regard for any moral qualities except fidelity to itself.

But if the life of the group is deliberate and sympathetic, its expression may be morally high, on a level not merely of the average member, but of the most competent, of the best. The average theory as applied to public consciousness is wholly out of place. The public mind may be on a lower plane than that of the individual thinking in separation, or it may be on a higher, but is almost sure to be on a different plane; and no inkling of its probable character can be had by taking a mean. One mind in the right, whether on statesmanship, science, morals, or what not,

(125) may raise all other minds to its own point of view—because of the general capacity for recognition and deference just as through our aptitude for sudden rage or fear one mind in the wrong may debase all the rest.

This is the way in which right social judgments are reached in matters so beyond commonplace capacity as science, philosophy, and much of literature and art. All good critics tell us that the judgment of mankind, in the long run, is sure and sound. The world makes no mistake as to Plato, though, as Emerson said, there are never enough understanding readers alive to pay for an edition of his works. This, to be sure, is a judgment of the few; and so, in a sense, are all finer judgments. The point is that the many have the sense to adopt them.

And let us note that those collective judgments in literature, art and science which have exalted Plato and Dante and Leonardo and Michelangelo and Beethoven and Newton and Darwin, are democratic judgments, in the sense that every man has been free to take a part in proportion to his capacity, precisely as the citizen of a democracy is free to take a part in politics. Wealth and station have occasionally tried to dictate in these matters, but have failed.

It is natural for an organism to use its appropriate organ, and it would be as reasonable to say that the capacity of the body for seeing is found by taking an average of the visual power of the hand, nose, liver, etc., along with that of the eye, as that the capacity of a group for a special purpose is that of its average member. If a group does not function through its most competent instruments, it is simply because of imperfect organization.


It is strange that people who apply the average theory to democracy do not see that if it were sound it must apply to all the social phenomena of history, which is a record of the works of the collective mind. Since the main difference between democracy and ancient or mediaeval systems is merely that the former is less restricted by time, space and caste, is essentially an appeal to free human power as against what is merely mechanical or conventional; by what magic is this appeal to deprive us of our ancient privilege of acting through our efficient individuals ?

One who ponders these things will see that the principles of collective expression are the same now as ever, and that the special difficulties of our time arise partly from confusion, due to the pace of change, and partly from the greater demands which a free system makes upon human capacity. The question is, whether, in practice, democracy is capable of the effective expression to which no very serious theoretical obstacle can be discerned. It is a matter of doing a rather simple thing on a vaster and more complicated scale than in the past.

Public opinion is no uniform thing, as we are apt to assume, but has its multifarious differentiations. We may roughly distinguish a general opinion, in which almost everybody in the community has a part, and an infinite diversity of special or class opinions—of the family, the club, the school-room, the party, the union, and so on.

And there is an equal diversity in the kind of thought with which the public mind may be concerned: the content may be of almost any sort. Thus there are group ideals, like the American ideal of indissoluble unity among

(127) the states, the French ideal of national glory, or the ideals of honor and good-breeding cherished in many families; and there are group beliefs, regarding religion, trade, agriculture, marriage, education and the like. Upon all matters in which the mind has, in the past, taken a lively interest there are latent inclinations and prepossessions, and when these are aroused and organized by discussion they combine with other elements to form public opinion. Mr. Higginson, recounting his experience in the Massachusetts legislature, speaks of "certain vast and inscrutable undercurrents of prejudice . . . which could never be comprehended by academic minds, or even city-bred minds," but which were usually irresistible. They related to the rights of towns, the public school system, the law of settlement, roads, navigable streams, breadth of wheels, close time of fishing, etc. "Every good debater in the House, and every one of its recognized legal authorities, might be on one side, and yet the smallest contest with one of these latent prejudices would land them in a minority."[1]

This diversity merely reflects the complexity of organization, current opinion and discussion being a pervasive activity, essential to growth, that takes place throughout the system at large and in each particular member. General opinion existing alone, without special types of thought as in the various departments of science and art, would indicate a low type of structure, more like a mob than a rational society. It is upon these special types, and the individuals that speak for them, that we rely for the

(128) guidance of general opinion (as, for instance, we rely upon economists to teach us what to think about the currency), and the absence of mature speciality involves weakness and flatness of general achievement. This fault is often charged to democracy, but it should rather be said that democracy is substituting a free type of speciality, based upon choice, for the old type based upon caste, and that whatever deficiency exists in this regard is due chiefly to the confused conditions that accompany transition.

General public opinion has less scope than is commonly imagined. It is true that with the new communication, the whole people, if they are enough interested, may form public judgments even upon transient questions. But it is not possible, nor indeed desirable, that they should be enough interested in many questions to form such judgments. A likeness of spirit and principle is essential to moral unity, but as regards details differentiation is and should be the rule. The work of the world is mostly of a special character, and it is quite as important that a man should mind his own business—that is, his own particular kind of general service—as that he should have public spirit. Perhaps we may say that the main thing is to mind his private business in a public spirit—always remembering that men who are in a position to do so should make it their private business to attend to public affairs. It is not indolence and routine, altogether, but also an inevitable conflict of claims, that makes men slow to exert their minds upon general questions, and underlies the political maxim that you cannot arouse public opinion

(129) upon more than one matter at a time. It is better that the public, like the general-in-chief of an army, should be relieved of details and free to concentrate its thought on essential choices.

I have only a limited belief in the efficacy of the referendum and similar devices for increased participation of the people at large in the details of legislation. In so far as these facilitate the formation and expression of public will upon matters to which the public is prepared to give earnest and continuous attention, they are serviceable; but if many questions are submitted, or those of a technical character, the people become confused or indifferent, and the real power falls into the hands of the few who manage the machinery.

The questions which can profitably be decided by this direct and general judgment of the public are chiefly those of organic change or readjustment, such, for instance, as the contemporary question of what part the government is to take in relation to the consolidation of industries. These the people must decide, since no lesser power will be submitted to, but routine activities, in society as in individuals, are carried on without arousing a general consciousness. The people are also, as I shall shortly point out, peculiarly fit to make choice among conspicuous personalities.

Specialists of all sorts—masons, soldiers, chemists, lawyers, bankers, even statesmen and public officials—are ruled for the most part by the opinion of their special group, and have little immediate dependence upon the general public, which will not concern itself with them so

(130) long as their work is not palpably inefficient or in some way distasteful.

Yet special phases of thought are not really independent, but are to be looked upon as the work of the public mind acting with a less general consciousness—partly automatic like the action of the legs in walking. They are still responsible to the general state of opinion; and it is usually a general need of the special product, as shoes, banks, education, medical aid and so on, that gives the special group its pecuniary support and social standing. Moreover, the general interest in a particular group is likely to become awakened and critical when the function is disturbed, as with the building trades or the coal-mine operators in case of a strike; or when it becomes peculiarly important, as with the army in time of war. Then is the day of reckoning when the specialist has to render an account of the talents entrusted to him.

The separateness of the special group is also limited by personality, by the fact that the men who perform the specialty do not in other matters think apart from the rest of the society, but, in so far as it is a moral whole, share its general spirit and are the same men who, all taken together, are the seat of public opinion. How far the different departments of a man's mind, corresponding to general and special opinion, may be ruled by different principles, is a matter of interest from the fact that every one of us is the theatre of a conflict of moral standards arising in this way. It is evident by general observation and confession that we usually accept without much criticism the principles we become accustomed to in each sphere of

(131) activity, whether consistent with one another or not. Yet this is not rational, and there is and must ever be a striving of conscience to redress such conflicts, which are really divisions in society itself, and tend toward anarchy. It is all easy but weak defence of low principles of conduct, in business, in politics, in war, in paying taxes, to say that a special standard prevails in this sphere, and that our behavior is justified by custom. We cannot wholly escape from the customary, but conscience should require of ourselves and others an honest effort to raise its standard, even at much sacrifice of lower aims. Such efforts are the only source of betterment, and without them society must deteriorate.

In other words, it is the chief and perhaps the only method of moral and intellectual progress that the thought and sentiment pertaining to the various activities should mingle in the mind, and that whatever is higher or more rational in each should raise the standard of the others. If one finds that as a business man he tends to be greedy and narrow, he should call into that sphere. his sentiments as a patriot, a member of a family and a student, and he may enrich these latter provinces by the system and shrewdness he learns in business. The keeping of closed compartments is a principle of stagnation and decay.

The rule of public opinion, then, means for the most part a latent authority which the public will exercise when sufficiently dissatisfied with the specialist who is in immediate charge of a particular function. It cannot extend to the immediate participation of the group as a whole in the details of public business.


This principle holds good in the conduct of government as well as elsewhere, experience showing that the politics of an intricate state is always a specialty, closer to the public interest, perhaps, than most specialties, but ordinarily controlled by those who, for whatever reason, put their main energy into it. Professional politicians, in this sense, are sure to win as against the amateur; and if politics is badly managed the chief remedy is to raise the level of the profession.

De Tocqueville says that " the people reign in the American political world as the Deity does in the universe. They are the cause and the aim of all things; everything comes from them and is absorbed by them."[2] And we may add that, also like the Deity, they do things through agents in whom the supposed attributes of their master are much obscured.

There are some who say we have no democracy, because much is done, in government as elsewhere, in neglect or defiance of general sentiment. But the same is true under any form of sovereignty; indeed, much more true under monarchy or oligarchy than under our form. The rule of the people is surely more real and pervasive than that of Louis XIV or Henry VIII. No sovereign possesses completely its instruments, but democracy perhaps does so more nearly than any other.

When an important function, such as government, or trade or education, is not performed to the satisfaction of watchful consciences, the remedy is somewhat as follows. A rather general moral sentiment regarding the matter must be aroused by publishing the facts and ex

(133) posing their inconsistency with underlying standards of right. This sentiment will effect little so long as it is merely general, but if vigorous it rapidly begets organs through which to work. It is the nature of such a sentiment to stimulate particular individuals or groups to organize and effectuate it. The press has a motive to exploit and increase it by vivid exposition of the state of affairs; enthusiasm, seeking for an outlet, finds it in this direction; ambition and even pecuniary interest are enlisted to gratify the demand. Effective leadership thus arises, and organization, which thrives in the warmth of public attention, is not long wanting. Civic leagues and the like —supposing that it is a matter of politics—unite with trusted leaders and the independent press to guide the voter in choosing between honesty and corruption. The moral standard of the professional group begins to rise: a few offenders are punished, many are alarmed, and things which every one has been doing or conniving at are felt as wrong. In a vigorous democracy like that of the United States, this process is ever going on, on a great scale and in innumerable minor groups: the public mind, like a careful farmer, moves about its domain, hoeing weeds, mending fences and otherwise setting things to rights, undeterred by the fact that the work will not stay done.

Such regeneration implies the existence of a real, though perhaps latent, moral unity in the group whose standards are thus revived and applied. It is, for instance, of untold advantage to all righteous movements in the United States, that the nation traditionally exists to the

(134) ends of justice, freedom and humanity. This tradition means that there is already a noble and cherished ideal, no sincere appeal to which is vain; and we could as well dispense with the wisdom of the Constitution as with the sentiment of the Declaration of Independence.

On the same principle, it is a chief factor in the misgovernment of our cities that they are mostly too new and heterogeneous to have an established consciousness. As soon as the people feel their unity, we may hopefully look for civic virtue and devotion, because these things require a social medium in which to work. A man will not devote himself, ordinarily, where there is no distinct and human whole to devote himself to, no mind in which his devotion will be recognized and valued. But to a vital and enduring group devotion is natural, and we may expect that a self-conscious city, state, university or profession will prove to be a theatre of the magnanimous virtues.


  1. On the Outskirts of Public Life, The Atlantic Monthly, Feb.,1898.
  2. Democracy in America, vol. i, chap. 4.

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