The Public Opinion Process: How the People Speak

By Denham, Bryan | Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

The Public Opinion Process: How the People Speak


Denham, Bryan, Journalism & Mass Communication Educator


Crespi, Irving (1997). The Public Opinion Process: How the People Speak. Mahwah, NJ.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. 190 pp. Paperback, $19.95. Hardback, $45.

In this eight-chapter text, Irving Crespi builds on established theory and research in the social sciences, as well as 40 years of professional experience, to advance a model of public opinion that includes three interactive dimensions. He suggests that, "Public opinion on particular issues emerges, expresses itself, and wanes as part of a threedimensional process in which individual opinions are formed and changed, these individual opinions are aroused and mobilized into a collective force expressive of collective judgments, and that force is integrated into the governance of a people."

These dimensions, Crespi explains, should not he considered a sequence of causally linked stages, but rather should he assumed to interact with one another as part of a dynamic multidimensional process. Though limited to issues in which there is considerable disagreement with regard to resolution, this model moves beyond a unidirectional approach to research and allows scholars to see a larger picture.

Crespi describes some important considerations for studying the opinion process. Scholars should remember, for instance, that collective opinion is not simply the aggregate of individual opinions, but is more like the output of a musical group; that is, its sum may be greater than its parts. He does a nice job of explaining that while opinions may be limited at the individual level, they can emerge as a strong force collectively.

In addition, Crespi explains, opinions often cannot be predicted from beliefs alone, and scholars should be careful not to blur the line between opinions and attitudes, for such a mistake contributes to the ongoing uncertainty as to what the term "public opinion" actually means.

The author also provides an interesting review of collective opinion in authoritarian and totalitarian states, where it exists for little more than propaganda. He then contrasts it with how collective opinion functions in a democracy, covering both populist and elitist conceptions. Logically, this section precedes one on opinion polls in both democratic and non-democratic societies.

If any part of the book could be improved, it's probably the last section. The discussion of polls in a democracy seems pretty cursory, and given their proliferation during election campaigns, in particular, a more thorough discussion would strengthen the book. …

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