In Chapter 1, we looked at many ways of defining public opinion, based on what the term means to different people in different contexts. We have established that public opinion is not a static, immobile object that holds a constant shape and mass over time. Rather, it is a highly dynamic, fluid process that reflects how people think, interact with one another, and deal with the bodies politic into which they have organized themselves.
We have seen how at the individual or personal level, citizens constantly change and reassess their attitudes and opinions, the better to fit new knowledge and experience. At the macro, or mass, societal level, politically salient events occur that transform political coalitions, the nature of issues, and the appropriateness of given policy options. And at the level of group interaction and networking, the everyday give and take of political talk at the dinner table, at the workplace, and over the phone or the Internet reshapes what we think of one another and about politics. At each of these levels, the development and generation of public opinion requires active communication processes to be at work. Recall from Chapter 6 how mass and interpersonal communication interplay to promote such phenomena as the spiral of silence and third-person effects from media. We have also learned that when people do learn new things or change attitudes or behaviors as a result of what they see or hear from others, complex psychological processes are involved, some involving highly logical steps, some based more on whims of the moment.
This chapter begins by examining how our thinking about the role of communication in the public opinion process has progressed. We will emphasize the interplay of mass media and public opinion, where most of the gains in our knowledge have taken place over recent decades. We will also, however, demonstrate the obvious but sometimes overlooked importance of interpersonal communication in the mix.