Source Book For Social Psychology
THE NATURE OF PUBLIC OPINION
The type of collective behavior with which we have dealt in the last three chapters has been largely of the sort which is dependent on physical contiguity for its manifestations. The sort of grouping which Bentley calls the congregate is only one of two types of crowd. The non-contiguous crowd or assemblage finds its expression through sentiments, attitudes and universal actions which are not contingent on physical proximity. This is the field of public opinion. It is evident that much of this second type of social behavior belongs to secondary groups and at present public opinion corresponds roughly to the reaches of secondary groups. It is true, of course, that public opinion also exists in primary groups.
The term public opinion has been used in a wide variety of senses. With some writers it is used as a "group mind" "collective consciousness" and "mob mind as if it represented a super-individual mind, a type of group personality or group manifestation over and above individuals. With many writers, especially in the field of politics, it has been used as relating exclusively to opinions and attitudes about political matters: leaders, political issues and the whole machinery of the state especially of democratic government. In the present chapter while some papers deal with public opinion in this sense of political opinion, we shall adopt the view that it may involve other phases of life interest than politics, such as, for example, religion, art, science, economic activities, and so on. In fact, the terms public and public opinion are so loosely used as to be frequently nothing but stereotypes. The word public often implies some mystical entity which scarcely exists in reality. There are rather publics revolving around objects of interest than any single entity which may be called the public. Actually we should do better perhaps to use the term "group
( 723) opinion" instead of "public opinion." Moreover, as Park and Burgess, Ross, and other writers point out, public opinion does not mean universal or preponderant opinion. Rather it has come to mean a state of opinions and beliefs over certain issues or matters where there is difference as well as agreement. When there is unanimity there is not opinion but folkways and mores. Public or group opinion implies discussion, differences of opinion, and general unrest of idea and attitude.
Originally public opinion had a very narrow range reaching scarcely beyond the confines of the village or rural neighborhood. Here gossip of the face-to-face sort played a principal rôle in its formation. Today the range of difference, discussion and interest is world-wide, and face-to-face gossip is supplemented and over-ridden by indirect gossip through newspapers, magazines, movies, radio, and all the latest means of communication.
In the present chapter we shall concern ourselves chiefly with the general features of public opinion, from various angles. In the following chapter we shall deal with the organs of opinion, and in the final chapter we shall present the methods of manufacture of public opinion or propaganda.
The opening paper from Ginsberg attempts to distinguish between the public and the crowd. The former is non-contiguous, multiform, less personal and more amorphous than the latter and yet it possesses possibilities for manipulation much as does the crowd or mob.
Park and Burgess discuss public opinion largely in terms of cross-currents of opinions and ideas coursing through various publics. A public for them is dependent upon consensus, participation and certain common patterns of response. And the opinion of this public implies both likeness and difference.
Allport is very insistent that public opinion is nothing but a collection of individual opinions, whereas Ellwood writes about it as a more or less rational judgment of a group. The former is thinking no doubt of the psychological processes, the latter of the sociological or group aspects of public opinion. Yet it should not be forgotten, as Cooley points out, that the leaders often but crystallize the notions and attitudes of the masses. Munro points out how public opinion is made by the leaders. Lord Bryce's statement of public opinion as the emergence of one set of opinions stronger than others out of a con-
( 274) -geries of notions, beliefs, and prejudices, indicates the conception of public opinion held by a great political scientist. He sees the differences, the cross-currents of opinion running through a group, but it becomes public opinion only when one of these tends to over-ride the others. And this dominance is determined by the ballot but also it is evident through other means of expression such as newspapers. In the succeeding paper Bryce treats certain aspects of political opinion showing the place which leaders and organs of public opinion have in the formation of public opinion.
The democratic theory that each man thinks out his choice of candidates and makes decision on issues clearly, logically and in isolation is a delusion through and through. Rather suggestion, social interaction through gossip, crowd stimulation playing upon emotions and feelings, in short, all the paraphernalia of crowd leadership, come into action in these situations.
, Shepard discusses of the differentia of public opinion. And Allport shows crowdish attitudes and the sense of universality which the person develops under the influence of organs of opinion. . Belief, opinion and knowledge all come into play in matters of public opinion. In the paper by Sheffield we have presented the process by which a group of thinkers may arrive at a concensus without the run of emotions and the shallow currents of opinion. Here facts and knowledge come into action. Thus discussion groups,—the committee, the seminar, the roundtable group,—are group configurations wherein the crowdish attitudes and mechanisms have little place.
The consensus from such a discussion is perhaps more rational and objective than any so-called public opinion could possibly be. The small deliberate group therefore is far more effective in arriving at facts and their interpretation than the larger mass, but in our democratic system little place is given such groups in contrast to the place 'given emotional thinking done for and with the masses by leaders, newspaper writers and contributors to journals of opinion.
Bogardus, following up his studies of prejudice by the measurement of social distance, has analyzed the methods of changing opinion. His material on how an individual alters his opinion is indicative of a change which should be studied in a wide variety of situations. Sutherland shows the relation between attitudes toward institutions and _obedience to law. He indicates briefly the contrast
(725) between public opinion in a primary group and its effect upon social control and the conditions in present-day industrialized urban society.
- M. Ginsberg. The Psychology of Society. New York: E.P. Dutton
- Robert E. Park and Ernest W. Burgess. Introduction to the Science of Sociology. Chicago: University of Chicago (1921).
- F.H. Allport. Social Psychology. Houghton Mifflin (1924)
- C.A. Ellwood. The Psychology of Human Society. New York: Appleton (1925).
- W. B. Munro. Personality in Politics New York: Macmillan (1924)
- J. Bryce. Modern Democracies. New York: Macmillan (1921)
- J. Bryce. The American Commonwealth. New York: Macmillan (1920)
- W. J. Shepard. “Public Opinion.” American Journal of Sociology 15 (1909-1910).
- Alfred Dwight Sheffield. Joining in Public Discussion. George H. Doran (1922).
- E. S. Bogardus. “Analyzing Public Opinion.” Journal of Applied Sociology 9 (1925).
- E. H. Sutherland. “Public Opinion as a Cause of Crime.” Journal Applied Sociology 9 (1925).