Methods for Studying
By now you might have guessed that public opinion is difficult to measure. Because it is a very complex force with so many psychological and sociological dimensions, there are many ways to think about the concept. Researchers have puzzled over the best way to measure public opinion since the early decades of the twentieth century and have debated the pros and cons of many techniques for evaluating this rather "slippery" concept.
Despite continuing debates over how to measure public opinion, there is some consensus among scholars, policymakers, interest group leaders, and journalists. These parties use a variety of techniques to assess the public mood: election returns, consumer behavior, stock market fluctuations, public meetings and demonstrations, and other such behavioral indicators. But when leaders or journalists want to understand the attitudes that drive behavior, they often turn to four methods of opinion assessment: survey research or polling, focus groups, experimental research, and the analysis of mass media content. In this chapter, we introduce each of these methods in order to give you a general overview of them. Our introduction to these methods is not intended to make you an expert on them, as this is not a methodology textbook. We do hope, however, that you will refer to the many methodological tracts on public opinion, including those referenced in this chapter.
Survey research has significantly shaped our view of publics and their opinions. We have seen in previous chapters how social theory in the early twentieth century grew more concerned with the concept of mass publics. A tool was needed that would empirically test notions of how large, dynamic groups of individuals thought and behaved. Sociologists had earlier been