Public Opinion: Social Attitudes

April 2015
International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, 2nd edition, Volume 19
Public opinion and social attitudes are broadly defined as the expression of beliefs, ideology, and sentiment within a citizenry with regard to the conduct of human affairs. The concept of public opinion arose as a consequence of the rise of democracy, premised on the notion that government should rule with the consent of the governed. Methods for collecting and analyzing data on public opinion based on survey samples were first developed in the US and Europe and are now used in most countries throughout the world. Within the field of survey research, the scientific study of public opinion has emerged as a specialized area of research that is done by sociologists, psychologists, political scientists, and market researchers. In the late 1960s, political scientists in the US were surprised to find that very few people base their political opinions and vote choices on a coherent system of beliefs. They also found that large percentages of respondents seemed to switch their opinions when asked the same question at different points in time. This instability and apparent lack of ideological consistency poses serious challenges for the theory of government by democracy. Subsequent research has shown that most people’s opinions are influenced by family socialization and education and are often based on perceptions of various social groups. Researchers also study the limitations of the methods and techniques used to measure public opinion in order to minimize biases that cause researchers to misinterpret their findings. Unlike the patterns of instability observed in individual opinions, public opinion at the aggregate level appears much more stable and consistent over time. Research on long-term trends in aggregate opinion has also shown that government does indeed respond to citizen preferences, but there is evidence to suggest that it has become more responsive (at least in the US) to the preferences of affluent citizens. Due to the globalization of the survey research industry, social scientists now have access to public opinion data from the vast majority of countries throughout the world.