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Breaking the Spiral of Silence About Corruption

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

There's nothing worse that can happen to a young scholar at her first conference presentation than having one of the big founders of one's academic field sit in the first row and stare intently at her poor little PowerPoint presentation. This happened to me with Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, one of the most eminent figures in the field of contemporary communication studies. She's eminent for a good reason, and also very relevant to our field of communication and governance.

Noelle-Neumann is the author of the Spiral of Silence, a theory of public opinion as social control. The essence of the Spiral of Silence is the assumption that people are afraid of being isolated and therefore adjust their opinions to what they perceive as the opinion of the majority. In her words: "... different patterns of behavior are bound for their part to influence the quasi-statistical picture of the distribution of opinions which the individual gains from his social environment. The one opinion confronts him ever more frequently and confidently; the other is heard less and less. The more individuals perceive these tendencies and adapt their views accordingly, the more the one faction appears to dominate and the other to be on the downgrade. Thus the tendency of the one to speak up and the other to be silent starts off a spiraling process which increasingly establishes one opinion as the prevailing one."*

It's worth thinking about what the Spiral of Silence means in our fight against corruption. In earlier posts we have noted the problem of petty corruption - everyday small-scale instances of bribery. Petty corruption is furthered by the people's perception that it is absolutely normal to pay an official for some service that should be provided by the state for free. If people assume that everyone pays bribes and that most people just put up with it, then petty corruption will become part of everyday culture. The fewer people protest, the fewer people will actually be against it, or say out loud that they are against it. But if people rally together and speak up against corruption, they create a climate of opinon against it. And if they speak up loud enough, more and more people will join them because they don't want to be isolated as outsiders that support bribery. Eventually, the climate of opinon will become the dominant stance.

Climates of opinon are very important for politicians. Since even in autocratic states leaders have to have some legitimacy from the public, they must be attuned to the climate of opinon. The business of opinion polling lives off that necessity. To stay in power, authorities need to heed public opinion to some degree - a strong climate of opinon against corruption could therefore actually result in institutional reform and in a change in culture.

* Noelle-Neumann, Elisabeth. (1974). The spiral of silence: A theory of public opinion. Journal of Communication. 24 (2), 43-51.

Photo credit: Flickr user Pictr 30D


Submitted by Karen Johnson-Cartee on
Change the Frame. Change the cultural narrative, not enough to hurt or interfere with indigenous cultures, but take a revered icon, hero, mythical narrative, reconstructing it to show that great men do not take bribes nor do they give them. Think about Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, Westside Story, and Love Story, and you can see how a subtle retelling of a well known and revered cultural narrative is transformational. We need to start thinking about transformational leadership, which uses familiar schemas to bring about change.

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