Social Process

Chapter 31: Public Opinion as Process[1]

Charles Horton Cooley

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PUBLIC opinion, if we wish to see it as it is, should be regarded as an organic process, and not merely as a state of agreement about some question of the day. It is, in truth, a complex growth, always continuous with the past, never becoming simple, and only partly unified from time to time for the sake of definite action. Like other phases of intelligence, it is of the nature of a drama, many characters taking part in a variegated unity of action. The leaders of the day, not only in politics but in every field, the class groups-capitalists, socialists, organized labor, professional men, farmers and the like-the various types of radicals and reactionaries; all these are members of an intricate, progressing whole. And it is a whole for the same reason that a play is, because the characters, though divergent and often conflicting, interact upon one another and create a total movement which the mind must follow by a total process. For practical uses as well as for adequate thinking this conception is better than the idea of public opinion as agreement. It aims to see the real thing, the developing thought of men, in its genesis and tendencies, and with a view to its probable operation.

The view that we have no public opinion except when, and in so far as people agree, is a remnant of that obsolete social philosophy which regarded individuals as

(379) normally isolated, and social life as due to their emerging partly from this isolation and coming together in certain specific ways. It is this habit of thought, apparently, that makes it difficult for most persons to understand that a group which has maturely thought over and discussed a matter arrives at a public opinion regarding it whether the members agree or not. That is, the mental process has developed about the matter in question and there has come to be a unity of action, as in a play, which insures that, however opinions may differ, they make parts of a whole, each having helped to form all the others. No one would deny unity of action to Macbeth because the characters are various and conflicting; if they were not, the unity would be too mechanical to be of interest; and so would it be with opinion if it attained any such uniformity as is sometimes supposed.

It is true that a process of opinion can hardly exist without a certain underlying like-mindedness, sufficient for mutual understanding and influence, among the members of the group; if they are separated into uncommunicating sections the unity of action is lost. Race difference may do this (largely, perhaps, by making men think they are more unlike than they are), religious division has done it, also traditional hostility, as where one nation has subjugated another, and even social caste. But communicated differences are the life of opinion, as cross-breeding is of a natural stock.

The main argument for basing the idea of public opinion upon agreement is that this is the only method of decision and consequently of action; which is what all is for; in other words, that it is only as agreement that opinion can function.

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It is true that decision is a phase of the utmost importance, corresponding to choice in the individual, and that the whole process of attention, discussion, and democratic organization is, in a sense, a preparation for it. It is equally true, however, that it is only a partial and often a superficial act, involving compromise and adjusted to a particular contingency. A real understanding of the human mind, both in its individual and public aspects, requires that it be seen in the whole process, of which majorities and decisions are but transient phases. The choice of to-day is important; but the inchoate conditions which are breeding the choices to come are at least equally so. We shall be interested to find whether Democrats or Republicans win the next election; but how much more interesting it would be to know what obscure group of non-conformers is cherishing the idea that will prevail twenty years from now.

The organic view seems to be the only one that does justice to the significance of minorities. If you think of agreement as the essential thing they appear as mere remnants, refractory and irreconcilable factions of no great importance. But if you have an eye for organic development, it is obvious that minorities, even small ones, may be the most pregnant factors in the situation. All progress, all notable change of any kind, begins with a few, and it is, accordingly, among the small and beginning parties that we may always look for the tendencies that are likely to dominate the future. Originality, faith, and the resolution to make things better are always in a minority, while every majority is made up for the most part of inert and dependent elements.

It, is a fact of the utmost significance when a few, or

(381) even a single individual, are so convinced of something that they are willing to stand up for it in the midst of a hostile majority; their very isolation insuring that they have more convincing grounds for their action than the ordinary undecided and conforming citizen. So Liebknecht, who alone in the German Reichstag opposed and denounced the war, was perhaps of more significance than all the more docile mass of the Socialist party. All great movements have in their early history heroes and often martyrs who were the seed of their future success.

There is nothing more democratic than intelligent and devoted non-conformity, because it means that the individual is giving his freedom and courage to the service of the whole. Subservience, to majorities, as to any other authority, tends to make vigorous democracy impossible.


  1. I touch but briefly upon public opinion In this book because I have already treated it at considerable length in my Social Organization.

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