Public Opinion

By Carroll J. Glynn; Susan Herbst et al. | Go to book overview

Chapter Two
The History of
Public Opinion

In the previous chapter, we discussed the various possible routes to understanding and measuring public opinion in the context of contemporary life, but we only made brief reference to the historical development of public opinion. This chapter is devoted to exploring the history of public opinion—the ways that intellectuals, citizens, and leaders have thought about that concept through the ages and the ways that these same individuals communicated and evaluated the popular sentiment.

There are two approaches to investigating the history of public opinion. One can examine the intellectual history of the concept itself in an attempt to follow the theoretical debates about the nature of public opinion. Intellectual history concentrates on how philosophers and theorists have thought about public opinion in different epochs. Alternately, one can pursue study of the sociocultural history of public opinion, paying close attention to the techniques people have used to communicate their opinions and the ways leaders have tried to assess those expressed beliefs. Neither approach is "better." On the contrary, these two forms of historical analysis complement each other. In this chapter, we explore both sorts of history so that you will understand the philosophical development of public opinion and the "nuts and bolts" of how public opinion has been expressed and measured in different communities at different points in history. We will begin with the intellectual history of the concept of public opinion and then move to social history.

Before we discuss philosophy, however, a few prefatory notes are in order. First, since the history of public opinion—intellectual and social—is so lengthy, we cannot explore all topics, debates, events, or theories in great depth. We will, however, give you enough of an introduction to the history of public opinion so that you have a skeletal map of this narrative. Second, this chapter focuses on the ways that public opinion has been discussed, expressed, and assessed in the West—primarily in the United States, the United Kingdom, and European nations. This geographical exclusiveness is

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