The New Look in Public Opinion Research
Paul M. Sniderman
Research on public opinion in the 1970s tended, in its basic contours and style, to be continuous with the research of the 1960s, and indeed, very largely with that of the 1950s. One fundamental paradigm -- minimalism as it has been called -- dominated the work of the two decades. Mass publics, it was contended, were distinguished by (1) minimal levels of political attention and information; (2) minimal mastery of abstract political concepts such as liberalism-conservatism; (3) minimal stability of political preferences; (4) and quintessentially, minimal levels of attitude constraint. Research was mainly organized around the four poles of minimalism, with continuity very much the theme of overviews of research of this period ( Abramson 1983; Converse 1975; Kinder 1983; Kinder and Sears 1985). Not that complete agreement prevailed by any means (e.g., Achen 1975; Pierce and Rose 1974; Converse 1975; above all, Nie, Verba and Petrocik 1979) -- but there was all the same consensus, if not on the answers to give, on the questions to ask. 1 In contrast, innovation -- new directions, new methods, new perspectives -- distinguishes the research of the last decade. I mean therefore to use this review essay as a platform to call attention to works that are, in point of view or in methodological approach, novel and fresh.
It would be wrong to imply that there was no continuity of concern or approach; still more so to suggest that the work of the 1980s disproved that of the 1960s and 1970s. Instead, the changes characteristic of the last decade illustrate a more interesting lesson to draw about the nature of scientific progress. The research of the 1960s and 1970s was very much preoccupied with whether the paradigm of minimalism should be accepted or not. In contrast, the research of the 1980s managed to get beyond minimalism precisely by accepting its fundamental thrust: ordinary citizens tend to pay attention to politics only fitfully, and possess in consequence a thin, rather than thick, knowledge of it.
It needed to be said that the ordinary citizen ordinarily pays only cursory attention to politics, and that there are in consequence a number of issues about which he or she does not have a considered opinion to offer. But viewed through the lens of minimalism, politics shrunk in size, indeed threatened to disappear. Research on public opinion, given the dominance of its emphasis in the 1960s and 1970s on the limits of popular understanding, wound up repeating the curious point that the study of public opinion and politics was not, and should not be, concerned with politics. The thrust of minimalism as a research program in public opinion was instead to emphasize the frequency with which ordinary citizens failed to form even an opinion about many political issues and, still more commonly, to document the frequency with which they failed to put their ideas about politics together consistently. The primary message of minimalism was thus, to exaggerate only slightly, that ordinary citizens tended to be muddle-headed (lacking constraint), or empty-headed (lacking genuine attitudes) -- or both. The task of the public opinion analyst, it followed, was not to reveal what the public thought about an issue of public policy, but rather to repeat, for issue after issue, that the ordinary citizen was unlikely to have given it much thought.
In contrast, what defines the new look in public opinion research is the movement of politics from the wings to center-stage. Offering an account of public opinion entails weighing how the preferences and choices of ordinary citizens, uninterested as they often are in public affairs, can be conditioned by the political process itself. Consider, by way of a nearly ideal-typical example, Carmines and Stimson ( 1989) landmark study of race and American politics. In an analysis remarkable for its range and coherence, their two-step argument begins with elite politics. With Goldwater's capture of the Republican presidential nomination in 1964, they argue, the party system turned on its axis. The Republican party, once the party of racial liberalism, emerged as the party of racial conservatism, and the Democratic party, only a few years earlier the bastion of southern segregationists, became the party of racial liberalism (see also Huckfeldt and Kohfeld 1989). And with this change at the elite level, Carmines and Stimson maintain, the issue of race moved to the center of the political thinking of ordinary citizens in the mid-1960s, imposing unprecedented constraint on mass belief