A Theory of Public Opinion

By Francis Graham Wilson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 4
The Emergence and Shaping of the Study of Public Opinion

I

The conditions under which the study of public opinion emerged need to be examined, since much of the contemporary concern with opinion is the development of methods and techniques. The rise of the study of opinion was an obvious result of troubled times during the last century. It was the result of an era when the masses of people were becoming organized to express their political demands, and mass opinion became recognized as a powerful force on government. Around the middle of the nineteenth century, inquiry into the nature of public opinion became the plaything of newspaper writers, of political leaders in their speeches, and of scholars and intellectuals who sensed, if vaguely, that a new discipline was taking shape. But the dialectical tension between the educated and the mass was not resolved either by new study or by political reform. The sudden view of masses on the march was a troubling and fearsome sight.

It was a time in which the universities began the systematic study of society; a time in which the social sciences were making their appearance, led by the triumphs of that most dismal science, political economy. It was a time in which almost every leading thinker held that the doctrine of progress must inevitably be attached to the idea of the advancement of the people who, as James Mill urged, were to grow in wisdom and power by learning

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