Public Opinion

… a core concept in Socioeconomic and Political Context and Atlas105

Concept description

W. Phillips Davison (2017) in Encyclopaedia Britannica defines public opinion as “an aggregate of the individual views, attitudes, and beliefs about a particular topic, expressed by a significant proportion of a community.”

Davison writes:

“Some scholars treat the aggregate as a synthesis of the views of all or a certain segment of society; others regard it as a collection of many differing or opposing views. Writing in 1918, the American sociologist Charles Horton Cooley emphasized public opinion as a process of interaction and mutual influence rather than a state of broad agreement. The American political scientist V.O. Key defined public opinion in 1961 as “opinions held by private persons which governments find it prudent to heed.” Subsequent advances in statistical and demographic analysis led by the 1990s to an understanding of public opinion as the collective view of a defined population, such as a particular demographic or ethnic group. …

“Political scientists and some historians have tended to emphasize the role of public opinion in government and politics, paying particular attention to its influence on the development of government policy. Indeed, some political scientists have regarded public opinion as equivalent to the national will. In such a limited sense, however, there can be only one public opinion on an issue at any given time.

“Sociologists, in contrast, usually conceive of public opinion as a product of social interaction and communication. According to this view, there can be no public opinion on an issue unless members of the public communicate with each other. Even if their individual opinions are quite similar to begin with, their beliefs will not constitute a public opinion until they are conveyed to others in some form, whether through print media, radio, television, the Internet, or telephone or face-to-face conversation. Sociologists also point to the possibility of there being many different public opinions on a given issue at the same time. Although one body of opinion may dominate or reflect government policy, for example, this does not preclude the existence of other organized bodies of opinion on political topics. The sociological approach also recognizes the importance of public opinion in areas that have little or nothing to do with government. The very nature of public opinion, according to the American researcher Irving Crespi, is to be interactive, multidimensional, and continuously changing. Thus, fads and fashions are appropriate subject matter for students of public opinion, as are public attitudes toward celebrities or corporations.

“Nearly all scholars of public opinion, regardless of the way they may define it, agree that, in order for a phenomenon to count as public opinion, at least four conditions must be satisfied: (1) there must be an issue, (2) there must be a significant number of individuals who express opinions on the issue, (3) there must be some kind of a consensus among at least some of these opinions, and (4) this consensus must directly or indirectly exert influence.”

Atlas topic, subject, and course

The Study of the Socioeconomic Context for Politics and Policy (core topic) in Socioeconomic and Political Context and Atlas105.


W Phillips Davison (2017), Public Opinion, Encyclopaedia Britannica, at, accessed 28 December 2018.

Page created by: Alec Wreford and Ian Clark, last modified on 28 December 2018.

Image:, Nature of public opinion, at, accessed 28 December 2018.