Communication is something of an ugly duckling in the social sciences – not many people take it seriously and not many people see the immediate relevance of the research. However, the study of public opinion is a good example to outline the immediate relevance of the field – and its future relevance.
Public opinion became a notable phenomenon in the 18th century theories of enlightenment, when questions of civic liberation and people’s sovereignty dominated the agenda of political thinking. Chronologically, the earliest comprehensive theories stem from political philosophy, with sociology and psychology taking over close to the turn from the 19th to the 20th century. While political science is still contributing to the field, the scope of its contributions has narrowed considerably since the days of, for instance, Bentham’s modeling of the interactions between government and civil society. Sociology, while still influential in terms of ‘grand theory’ á la Habermas, lost ground in terms of empirical research. Methodological advancements such as attitude scales and probability sampling have strengthened the influence of a psychological paradigm in the field of public opinion research. Since public opinion is, essentially, about communication processes and effects, communication research has been staking its claim to the issue and has the advantage of combining knowledge and insight from the three other eminent fields.
Political theory is arguably the biggest influence in the field of public opinion study, not least because up to this day, public opinion is closely connected to matters of the state. James Mill and Jeremy Bentham were among the earliest political theorists who explicitly conceptualized public opinion as constituting part of democracy. While in earlier works public opinion was understood more as a form of social control that took effect within society, Bentham’s ‘public opinion tribunal’ explicitly established the public as control over the government. Since then, closely connected ideas such as the press as fourth estate and the notion of ‘checks and balances’ have further extended and specified the political functions of public opinion.
Sociology comes in when the question is about the formation of public opinion. Public opinion is formed through the interaction of groups as well as the interaction of individuals within groups – obviously a social phenomenon. Relevant here are studies of elite-mass interactions and research on small social groups and collective behavior. Habermas' theory of the transformation of the public sphere is possibly the most influential work coming from sociology. Interestingly, it focuses a lot on classical communication issues such as the role of the press and media systems.
Since public opinion is a phenomenon both of collectives and of individuals, psychology provides legitimate and necessary insights. Psychology entered the field of public opinion study when analysts were wondering about the irrational aspects of decision making, for instance when debating whether citizens were able to come to any reasonable conclusion regarding matters as far out of their reach as political processes. Methodological advancements such as attitude scales and probability sampling have strengthened the influence of a psychological paradigm in the field of public opinion research. Methods from psychology allowed empirical access to a concept that had been inaccessible when it was referring to the imaginary groups of normative political philosophies. The lasting effect of this diffusion of methodology is apparent in the business of opinion polling to this day.
Enter communication. Being a brave communication researcher who loves her field and thinks that it deserves more acknowledgement than it currently gets, let me be bold and call this day and age the “age of communication research”, at least for the study of public opinion. Since the beginning of the press, public opinion has been closely tied to (mediated) communication. In a book published in 1909, Charles Cooley puts it most enthusiastically: “the new communication has spread like morning light over the world, awakening, enlightening, enlarging, and filling with expectation. Human nature desires the good, when it once perceives it, and in all that is easily understood and imitated great headway is making.” A large number of public opinion students are considerably less optimistic about the role of the media in general and the press in particular, but even the earliest conceptualizations of public opinion as we understand it today point to the crucial meaning of information dissemination. Basically, there can be no public without communication: Publics can only form around a problem if they know about it and they can only fulfill their political function if they can deliberate about it. Mass media’s influence on public opinion has been demonstrated in numerous studies.
Public opinion is about information dissemination and processing, and that again is the core business of communication research. Precisely because communication is the central process that is analyzed, researchers in the field have accumulated a substantial body of literature on numerous communication phenomena. This kind of specialization deepens and widens the understanding of the formation of public opinion. On the other hand – sociologists and political scientists might argue that there is no need to have an extra field dealing with communication. As sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies put it at a meeting of the German Sociological Association in 1930: “Why would we need press research within sociology? We don't need a chicken or duck science within biology.” The field’s specific expertise in focusing on a wide variety of communication processes gives reason to hope, though, that this focus will eventually define a coherent field and that the integration of knowledge about communication will provide us with the means to continuously improve the conceptualization and analysis of public opinion as a crucial force in politics and society.
Main sources for this blog post:
Picture credit: Flickr user DailyPic
- Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere
- Social Sciences
- Public Sphere
- Public Opinion Tribunal
- Public Opinion
- Political Science
- Political Philosophy
- mass media
- James Mill
- Information Processing
- Information Dissemination
- Fourth Estate
- Communication Studies
- Communication Science
- Communication Research
- Charles Cooley