In Chapter 4, we considered the ways in which mental processes affect public opinion. In this chapter, we will examine the ways in which social forces affect public opinion formation and expression. It may seem strange to think of social factors influencing public opinion. American culture places a high value on individualism, and we tend to think in individualistic terms. The democratic ideal envisions an independent actor acquiring information, weighing choices, and rendering an evaluative judgment, all more or less without interference from the rest of the citizenry or from politicians.
This vision of the independent actor is further supported by the way that we most commonly measure public opinion. When we take a survey, we ask each individual, anonymously and privately, to express opinions on a variety of issues. Those individual responses are aggregated, and the result is called public opinion. However, reality is often not like what we try to measure in survey research. People interact and acquire information from each other and influence each other; they are socialized into particular ways of thinking about social problems, and they often feel constrained by norms or standards of "correct" behavior in our society.
Unfortunately, much of what we know about public opinion is based upon the investigation of what goes on within the individual, because this individual perspective has guided most empirical public opinion research. In recent years, however, scholars have determined that public opinion is a phenomenon far more complex than the aggregation of individual opinions suggests. Once again, scholars have turned their attention to the social and group factors that influence the formation and expression of public opinion.
Literally dozens of social alliances can affect public opinion: culture, political affiliation, socialization, and group dynamics, for a start. Rather than attempt an encyclopedic approach to this area of research, we want to introduce you to some of the more important theories available to the public opinion scholar from the field of social psychology. To begin with, we will consider the ways in which our own beliefs about others affect public opinion by reviewing attribution theory and stereotyping. Then we will consider