Constructing Public Opinion: How Political Elites Do What They like and Why We Seem to Go along with It

Article excerpt

Constructing Public Opinion: How Political Elites Do What They Like and Why We Seem to Go Along With It, Justin Lewis. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001. 250 pp. $49.50 hbk. $16.50 pbk.

After reading Justin Lewis's Constructing Public Opinion, the reader finds it is difficult to think of polling and public opinion in the same old way. And herein lies the value of this book. Polling-a practice many Americans only think about when they are interrupted at dinner by a phone call-today delves into everything from our lifestyles to our thoughts on important public issues and politicians. Public opinion, which informs everything from advertising to presidential campaigns to public referenda, has become essential to a variety of industries and institutions. This book deals only with polls and public opinion that pertain to politics and journalism. But that is enough, for its author raises interesting and important questions that lead to a more critical evaluation of polls, and the uses and abuses of their data by the corporate media and political elites.

Lewis begins with a discussion of the ongoing debate between academics and professionals about the value of quantitative research. He says from the start that he favors qualitative methods. Quantitative analysis leads to untenable, simple-minded conclusions that make it impossible to see the bigger picture, Lewis and its other critics maintain. But he admits to having been an avid consumer of poll data and saves his main complaints for the corporate media rather than for polling per se. It is not the method itself that is the problem. Rather, it is how polls are being manipulated and abused by the corporate media and some politicians, who use poll data in highly selective, self-serving ways, he argues.

Lewis discusses his topics within the broadest social-structural framework. While he brings in a bit of history in his discussion of public opinion, the examples he uses in his analysis represent the recent past. Part one of the book analyzes public opinion as a cultural form, as a discourse that represents public opinion in ways that do not always accurately portray the public's position on issues. In 1994, for example, public opinion poll data showed support for more progressive-leaning positions than those held by the Republican Congress, but such data were suppressed by television news journalists as well as by newspaper and radio people. …