The Misunderstood Public Opinion of James Bryce

By Bradshaw, Katherine A. | Journalism History, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

The Misunderstood Public Opinion of James Bryce


Bradshaw, Katherine A., Journalism History


Public opinion polls have appeared in newpapers since the 1930s, and George Gallup relied on the thinking of James Bryce to link such polling to democracy. However, using Bryce's work to make this link demonstrates a misunderstanding of it. While Gallup argured that common men were wise, Bryce argured men were stratified by race and ordered by rank in their ability to reason and govern. Thus, be advocated extending the influence of an elite few to the masses in order to moderate the dangers of voting. He thought it a pity that so many of what he called the irrational, unreasoning "residuum "could vote. However, this may have been ignored by pollsters and social scientists because they were unaware of the historical arguments or may not have understood the subtlety of historial theory due to their foundational quantitative assumptions.

Today's most widely accepted definition of public opinion is that it is the sum of individual opinions, as determined by polls based on probability sampling.1 This view supposedly reflects an egalitarian democracy, as espoused by Victorian historian James Bryce in the late nineteenth century in The American Commonwealth. After publishing it in 1888, he made only minor changes in subsequent editions over the next three decades. He and his work, however, have been widely misunderstood by public opinion scholars.

Recent scholars have used Bryce's work to describe models and to derive theoretical propositions by relying primarily on the chapter, "The Nature of Public Opinion," in The American Commonwealth. In this chapter, he painstakingly detailed how one man formed an opinion and how his opinion was influenced by newspapers, conversations, and political parties. However, standing on its own, the chapter was misleading. It was part of a larger argument being made in the book's public opinion section, which, in turn, was a portion of an argument being made in the entire book. Bryce set up this model of opinion formation as a way to describe what public opinion was not. His model was a description of sentiment or passive opinion, not the rational opinion that he said was required by democratic theory and which the entire public opinion section of the book argued was only found among an elite few British-Americans living in the northeastern part of the United States.

This article joins multiple scholarly voices that are reconsidering the assumption of mainstream United States social scientists that public opinion is the result of public opinion polls.3 It is the first work incorporating the theoretical considerations from race, class, and gender scholarship and applying them to a discussion of the historical development of the concept of public opinion.

This study demonstrates how Bryce was not an egalitarian but thought of public opinion as a vaporous thing possessed by an elite few. These elite persons were determined by his presumptions, which were based on his theory. But he has been widely misunderstood by scholars, who have failed to appreciate his racialist-based historical theory and have been taking his writing out of context since the 1930s.4 Besides concentrating heavily on his writings, this research relies on scholarship that has displayed the pervasiveness of racialist thinking during the nineteenth century. Bryce's writings have formed a theoretical foundation for the role of polling in a republican government as a link between elected representatives and their constituents. Meanwhile, the role and importance of polling have been virtually unquestioned by the polling industry and the news media that have publicized poll results for more than sixty-five years. This study, however, challenges the mainstream interpretation of Bryce. At most, it calls into question the theoretical basis for the work of George Gallup, his peers, and their successors; at the least, it calls for an end to the citation of Bryce as the originator of the currently dominant definition of public opinion. …

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