Public opinion (social opinion) is a totality of views of society members or its more sizeable factions at cases determining object of general interests in a given moment. Sociology takes up with a public opinion research, by means of statistic methods, especially opinion polls.1 According to the English Dictionary, public opinion means appearing in society or its group’s totality of views, concerning cases actually important for the given society, especially led by country home policy and outdoor policy. The word “opinion” is used in relation to public opinion research and its definition includes a wide range. An opinion is a belief conviction, judgment, view. Some people determine it as answer for question about judgment and personal opinion.2
Public opinion are views, attitudes, assessment concerning an actual and determined object (of value) or determined person and the way of its behavior, which are formulated and passed to each other by members of the public, focused around a judged value or a person. Its meaning lies in this, that it disposes with sanctions, and because of this it causes reaction of groups and environments at behavior of a given person in situations recognized as important for a given group or environment.
Public opinion is a sum of answers given in representative poll opinions. This definition is supported by most of the researchers. It allows conducting a systematic and rational research and it suits to accepted ideal of individualistic democracy, where all of the citizens have their opinion at every subject. Sometimes an excessive trust to public opinion research is criticized, ability of opinion polls to operating over enough natural questions. Doubts concern thing, if citizens really have determined opinions, which may be compared according to measurable criterions. The conception of educated public opinion tries to step out of seen superficiality of often answers for opinion poll questions, orientating to this, what public opinion could adjudicate, if that was rational and informed enough. People not necessarily need this, what it seems they want in given circumstances. If they were informed better, they would often give another answer, they would vote differently. However, it mustn’t compare “well informed” persons with “educated” ones, because high level of political knowledge may be related with something else than enlightenment. However, owning the information is a significant.
Next definition treats public opinion as a hidden opinion. American Political Scientist, V.O. Key (1961) defined public opinion as “judgment of private persons, who governing persons in their opinion should take into account with”. He introduced concept of “hidden opinion”, which is “the only kind of opinion, which really makes to care about it”.3 The hidden opinion comes to light during the nearest election and it’s imminent of removing of governing politics from taken posts. In Key’s opinion, answering for questionnaire doesn’t give any directions, what hidden opinion will have in common with votes? A public opinion doesn’t have to take some distinct attitude; no opinion poll has to catch it. Politicians must predict, referring to social reactions at former events and manifestation of opposition, how opinion is going to be formed in the future.4
Public opinion may be understood as reaction of human complexes at political actions, as publicly expressed state of consciousness of these complexes. It refers to cases important for society, often controversial ones. It is variable; it may get changed even in a short period of time. Reaction or consciousness in colloquial understanding is identified with people expressing it and we say: “reaction of public opinion”, “standpoint of public opinion”. In this understanding, public opinion simply is society, grown up part of it having the election rights, active politically. Though the simplest way would be seeing it as approval or disapproval according to political actions, however research of opinion and analyses indicate existing of the third state: indifference towards a given phenomenon. Political parties often fight exactly for decreasing of that third group -for winning over indifferent and undecided ones on their site.
Public opinion increases feeling of the political bond, what constitutes basic to forming election electorates. Persons expressing similar opinions focus around the symbols, views, values – they are susceptible to expressing support for politicians proclaiming similar views. It may concern both, present and past issues; though it focuses on country issues, it concerns problems with global character, too, or issues being in touch with home and abroad issues, like in 1990th in Poland – issues related to joining NATO by Poland or integration with European Union.5
Knowledge of public opinion indicates to politicians, what the views about the given phenomenon are and how big shares with it part of the society. Data is delivered here by public opinion research, which is conducted by specialized centers.
This survey, because of the fact of a public disclosure, affect at public opinion to a certain degree. A part of the surveys are disclosed in press, others – performed for the order of party or government – are only to the knowledge of borderers, affecting at their actions. Public opinion is shaped by information, which come to this, and there may be manipulated. It shall be deemed that public opinion is often manipulated by the leaders of parties and the mass media. Time of election campaign favors this kind of actions.6
The definition social opinion is very often used with the term public opinion. Eugeniusz Młyniec determines social opinion as a concept wider than public opinion. According to him, social opinion is supposed to concern wider range of problems, including problems not directly linked to politics, such as upbringing, organs transplantation, and abortion. However Eugeniusz Młyniec admits that each of these problems may become a political problem when political power interest with it and use to fighting for power. However concepts “social opinion” and “public opinion” are used alternately, the first one is not used as often as second one.7
It’s worth at this place practical aspect, and not only theoretical one related to public opinion. Published every month surveys of popularity of government, political parties and particular politicians give the rhythm to public life. At occasion of any significant, media debate, the society is represented by divided for sectors, colorful “cake”, which constitutes a visualization of a social opinion. This survey is a specific instance for politicians and journalists, which they can appeal to.
And because of this there appear voices that prime minister should leave, because “he lost a social trust” and the inspection is necessary as “people demand the truth”. Public opinion survey is one of the most favor sociologists’ tasks. A lot of those serve to significant aims, thanks to those there is possibility to find out a lot about the state of society. However surveys concerning public and social issues look different. There appear well justified doubts if a continuous publishing of this kind surveys serves to development of democracy. More and more often politician’s check how their actions are assessed in surveys and to its results, to this, what society allegedly expects they suit their conduct. “Allegedly”, because public opinion survey is in general burdened with a significant margin of mistake and it often delivers answers for, in fact, not significant questions.
Public opinion is the most important tool of society, simply necessary to expressing itself in the democratic system. Election is just one of the forms of formulating of public opinion standpoint. One should think that politicians should be concerned about this standpoint, which never is homogeneous, but there often exist tendencies, which should be in mind with. However it seems that not in the United States and Nigeria, because attitude of President Bush and President Obasanjo are extreme examples of this, who doesn’t reckon with public opinion judgment, though he is not the first one.8
First of all, it is when political power interest with it and use to fighting for power. However concepts “social opinion” and “public opinion” are used alternately, the first one is not used as often as second one. It’s worth at this place practical aspect, and not only theoretical one related to public opinion. Published every month surveys of popularity of government, political parties and particular politicians give the rhythm to public life. At occasion of any significant, media debate, the society is represented by divided for sectors, colorful “cake”, which constitutes a visualization of a social opinion.9 This survey is a specific instance for politicians and journalists, which they can appeal to.
And because of this there appear voices that prime minister should leave, because “he lost a social trust” and the inspection is necessary as “people demand the truth”. Public opinion survey is one of the most favor sociologist’s tasks. A lot of those serve to significant aims, thanks to those there is possibility to find out a lot about the state of society. However surveys concerning public and social issues look different. There appear well justified doubts if a continuous publishing of this kind surveys serves to development of democracy. More and more often politician’s check how their actions are assessed in surveys and to its results, to this, what society allegedly expects they suit their conduct. “Allegedly”, because public opinion survey is in general burdened with a significant margin of mistake and it often delivers answers for, in fact, not significant questions (Larzarsfeld, Paul. Felix .1993).
Nevertheless, this kind of surveys are conducted and public opinion – as proved before – exists regardless if it’s given to sociologist surveys or is expressed on many other ways by journalists, mass media, in voting act, in strikes time and many others occasions. A lot of regulations were conducted against standpoint of public opinion. Sometimes it becomes simply unnecessary, but it mustn’t continuously ignore the standpoint dominating in public opinion, because then we have to do with decline of democracy.10 Among other things, democracy is an incessant interchange, continuous public debate being between a society and the powers. Democracy, which works on the principles of conversation “old man to the picture” is referred to as autocracy, what we start having to do in Nigeria with. Autocracy may have most sincere intentions, but it has got nothing in common with democracy. 11
First of all, public opinion in every democratic country is a power, whereas sometimes mass media have too much of power. A vote of confidence, which prime minister got against the public opinion, is evidence of this, that parliament completely forgot that we have substantial democracy. But when public opinion is demolished, results may be unexpected. Public opinion has already been overthrowing the institutions and has been leading to rapid shocks (Dawson, Richard. E. 1989-2002).
But it is worth to pay attention at this, that opinion polls don’t constitute a neutral representation of a social reality. There are just political tools of shaping this. There exist couples of silent assumptions being the basics of so general using of opinion polls. First of all, it is Persons who are worse educated more often don’t know than better educated ones. But woman more often restrain themselves from the answer than man. Lack of the answers and defining, by the way politics area as “not for me” area, means resignation from opportunity of affection at its shape, because the silent minority is not at all taken into consideration is excluded, not understood rest. However it may be assumed, though decision is truly political, that silent respondents are not taken into consideration. Then it becomes obvious, that opinions at given subject, among the answering, mean exactly the same. If respondents think that, for example, they support acceptance of savings plan for budget of the country, then all persons answering “yes” exactly know what this plan is all about (Combs, Maxwell Mc. 1991).
However, in general, it is different. The answer for question about savings in the budget for most of the respondents is a political answer for a political subject, for other ones it is expression of their daily routines and dispositions. Support for budget savings expressed by stockbroker may mean something quiet different than support expressed by a supermarket cashier.12 Questions appearing in opinion polls, in public sphere are treated as there would be agreement about validity of putting it up. At the same time the public opinion is considered as instance giving topics to public debates. “However the agreement is illusory and public opinion has got a bigger part of listener than interlocutor inside. In public sphere there is defined what is politically thinkable and this is excluded as absurdity.
There are constructed legally valid subjects of politics and the ways of talking about these. Workshops of public opinion surveys ask respondents about matters, which are considered as subject worth the trouble by actors of public scene. However, first of all, both politicians and journalists mention surveys concerning most “burning” problems. Power of public subjects creating is defined by differentiated powers, which is in public sphere owned by determined persons, groups and institutions. Persons having access to privileged position in mass media have superiority in imposing the subjects, which have to make everybody interested (Irving, Crespi. 1997).
Analysis shows that it doesn’t mean that the list of subjects is closed and defined only by “narrow group holding the power”. It is needed to take into consideration that introducing of new train to public debate is usually hard. Worse organized groups have dim chances for forcing of significant issues for them as the subjects, which are worth of asking respondents about them. However, both popularity of survey of public opinion and tendency to using results of such a survey are related to belief about its scientific value. Commented results of opinion polls are treated as an objective record of social reality. “The metaphors of public opinion survey show it well – opinion pool is determined as “mood thermometer” or “opinion barometer”. First of all, institutes of public opinion survey confirm legal validity of dominating ways of speaking about social reality”13
Realizing a survey as a commission favors this, what in turn impedes achieving the distance towards asked subjects and demanded ways of giving the questions. First and second one is strongly related to borderer’s expectations. “The production of knowledge in these institutions occurs under time pressure, what gives a preferential treatment to using ready survey formulas, as the way for improving productivity. The commentators of survey results, often legitimating with academic degrees, are involved in logistics of mass media, where priority has got a new, distinct and attractive, before what is ambiguous and excessively complex.14
Scientific researches, contrary to public opinion surveys which are made by specialized survey institutes, are characterized with distance towards colloquial categories and a specific approach to time, which may be understood by colloquial observers only as wasting time. Though opinion polls don’t meet criterions of scientific proceeding, in public opinion there are considered as scientific products. Their position bases on this and thanks to this there can play a significant role. As the lack of autonomy in constructing of categories and problems is not an obstacle in “lending” of scientific legitimization, for politicians and journalists. Resuming, it should be indicated that public opinion survey, beside popularity of politicians and parties, concern a standpoint of opinion towards social and economic problems; these surveys may be used by establishing strategy of party and in current actions, too – appearances or publications.
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The Public process: How the people speak. By Irving Crespi, 1997
On Social Research and It Language by Paul Felix Larzarsfeld, 1993
The theory of Public opinion by Francis Graham Wilson. 1990-2004 p310
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1 Norrander, Barbara., Wilcox, Clyde. (2001); Understanding Public Opinion. Second edition, A Division of Congressional Quarterly Inc. Washington, D.C. Pp.265-266
8 Adedeji, A. (1997); Popular Participation, Democracy and Development: Is there a Dialectical Linkage? in Adedeji, A. & Onigu, O.(eds. 1997) Nigeria: Renewal from the Roots? The Struggle for Democratic Development, Ijebu Ode: ACDESS. P.7
10 Kurczewski, J. (1999). Posłowie a opinia publiczna: badań nad Przedstawicielstwem w trzecieji Rzeczypospoliteji, Warsawa. p.124