Does ‘Public Opinion’ Really Exist?

100602601_348e347e48_oFlip on cable news, and within twenty minutes the host will cite the latest survey as proof of which candidates should run for office and which foreign enemy we must now smite. Writing for New Left Media, John Brissenden tears apart the idea of opinion polls as a gauge for determining what anyone truly wants. The public may respond to opinion polls, but it’s the media, business, and political elite who compose the questions:

From its inception a century ago, and in its current construction, the terrain of ‘public opinion’ is far from being a neutral space where a representative democracy deliberates and resolves issues. At best, ‘public opinion’, as represented in opinion polls, is a deeply flawed mechanism for gauging the extent of wider support for a particular cause. At worst, it is hostile territory, constructed and owned by the ruling class.

In the 1920s, polling pioneers such as James Gallup advocated polls as a means of capturing and expressing the public will, in a more scientific – and therefore representative – way than, for example, pressure groups.

Forty years ago, Pierre Bourdieu mounted his influential critique of the opinion poll technocracy, when he argued that public opinion does not exist. In particular, Bourdieu drew attention to the assumptions underlying the very business of opinion polling: that the ability to produce an opinion on a given question is equally open to all, that all opinions have equal value from the point of view of those commissioning, constructing, interpreting and publishing the poll, and that there is agreement on what questions are worth asking in the first place:

[The opinion poll’s] most important function is to impose the illusion that there is something called public opinion in the sense of the purely arithmetical total of individual opinions; to impose the illusion that it is meaningful to speak of the average of opinions or the average opinion.

The ‘public opinion’ that is manifested on the front pages of newspapers is a pure and simple artifact whose function is to disguise the fact that the state of opinion at a given time is a system of forces, tensions, and that nothing more inadequately expresses the state of opinion than a percentage.

Justin Lewis does not dismiss polling as comprehensively as Bourdieu, but rather argues that we should acknowledge both the shortcomings of polling data and the constructed nature of polls as a text. Despite Gallup’s good intentions, the outcomes of opinion polling, as Lewis demonstrates, are an inversion of classical notions of assembly (the media accord a legitimacy to polling data which they deny to crowds of protesters or striking workers); the creation of a body of poll results of which we become passive observers rather than active participants; and the manifestation of that data as an authored text – like a movie or a TV show – created by a technical elite, and so, self-evidently, at several removes from people’s lived experiences of the issues under discussion.

So we ought, at least, to remain deeply skeptical, not only of polling methodology, but of the pseudo-realism which the polling industry projects onto the complexities of social and political life. This is not a merely philosophical exercise, but has real consequences, as in relation to the attack on Afghanistan 10 years ago.

There is, then, powerful evidence to suggest that public opinion has been deployed as a weapon of class warfare by capital since the 1930s; that the use of propaganda techniques by economic elites has continued, increasing in its sophistication and volume, to the present day; that the techniques and measures of opinion polling which are deployed by political, business and media elites are fundamentally flawed at a conceptual as well as a methodological level.

I maintain that, in this context, the tendency of those on the left to accept the terrain of ‘public opinion’ at face value, and to triangulate tactics in the fight against austerity in terms of how they might affect public opinion, hands our opponents a huge advantage and ensures that the campaign is played out on territory which they largely control.

, , , , , , , ,

  • Liam_McGonagle

    Well, yeah.  Of course.

    People are impatient.  Lord knows why.  We’ve advanced to such a point where we should theoretically be able to leverage our technology to permit us, on average, a massive amount of free time in comparison to the historical norm.  But there’s some perverse emotional imperative forcing us to pretend that we’re all desparately stretched for time–time to take care of immediate, urgent tasks, to the complete exclusion of anatomical dissections of the issues confronting society.

    Upshot:  We’re fuckin’ grateful to anyone who “simplifies” the questions for us.  Far from being insulted by having an array of false dichotomies shoved down our throats, we congratulate ourselves at being able to effortlessly (re)articulate such enormous complexities so quickly.  We probably even feel flattered by the attentions of a massive PR/propaganda structure. 

    Thank you for insulting us, Madison Avenue!  It shows you really care.  Now piss off–I have to go file some bullshit reports no one will ever read so they can take up space in an airless landfill for the next 300 years.

  • Liam_McGonagle

    Well, yeah.  Of course.

    People are impatient.  Lord knows why.  We’ve advanced to such a point where we should theoretically be able to leverage our technology to permit us, on average, a massive amount of free time in comparison to the historical norm.  But there’s some perverse emotional imperative forcing us to pretend that we’re all desparately stretched for time–time to take care of immediate, urgent tasks, to the complete exclusion of anatomical dissections of the issues confronting society.

    Upshot:  We’re fuckin’ grateful to anyone who “simplifies” the questions for us.  Far from being insulted by having an array of false dichotomies shoved down our throats, we congratulate ourselves at being able to effortlessly (re)articulate such enormous complexities so quickly.  We probably even feel flattered by the attentions of a massive PR/propaganda structure. 

    Thank you for insulting us, Madison Avenue!  It shows you really care.  Now piss off–I have to go file some bullshit reports no one will ever read so they can take up space in an airless landfill for the next 300 years.

  • Mrtchops

    I suspect most of the visitors to disinformation are already pretty aware of this article’s contention.
    The corporate media/PR firms/government press offices (is there actually any distinction between these institutions?!?) shamelessly manipulate public polling through the use of loaded/leading questions, are fully aware of the inherent bias in who actually responds to these polls (big bias towards older, more conservative respondents)… and anyway, anyone who’s ever perused “Manufacturing Consent” or some similar critique of the mass media knows full well that the agenda of what is actually being polled/discussed is set by the powers that be (i.e. the REALL owners of the world).
    Polls demonstrating that the VAST majority of citizens in ALL countries support universal health care, comprehensive public education, an end to whatever unjust war is being fought at that given moment (currently Iraq & Afghanistan), that corporations shoulder a fairer share of the tax burden, and so on, and so forth.. well, these polls are simply ignored.
    Just another example of how “democracy” is manipulated and bastardised.
    “Go back to bed, America. Your government has figured out how it all
    transpired. Go back to bed, America. Your government is in control
    again. Here. Here’s American Gladiators. Watch this, shut up.”
    Sorry, couldn’t resist quoting Hicks…

  • Mrtchops

    I suspect most of the visitors to disinformation are already pretty aware of this article’s contention.
    The corporate media/PR firms/government press offices (is there actually any distinction between these institutions?!?) shamelessly manipulate public polling through the use of loaded/leading questions, are fully aware of the inherent bias in who actually responds to these polls (big bias towards older, more conservative respondents)… and anyway, anyone who’s ever perused “Manufacturing Consent” or some similar critique of the mass media knows full well that the agenda of what is actually being polled/discussed is set by the powers that be (i.e. the REALL owners of the world).
    Polls demonstrating that the VAST majority of citizens in ALL countries support universal health care, comprehensive public education, an end to whatever unjust war is being fought at that given moment (currently Iraq & Afghanistan), that corporations shoulder a fairer share of the tax burden, and so on, and so forth.. well, these polls are simply ignored.
    Just another example of how “democracy” is manipulated and bastardised.
    “Go back to bed, America. Your government has figured out how it all
    transpired. Go back to bed, America. Your government is in control
    again. Here. Here’s American Gladiators. Watch this, shut up.”
    Sorry, couldn’t resist quoting Hicks…

  • Mrtchops

    I suspect most of the visitors to disinformation are already pretty aware of this article’s contention.
    The corporate media/PR firms/government press offices (is there actually any distinction between these institutions?!?) shamelessly manipulate public polling through the use of loaded/leading questions, are fully aware of the inherent bias in who actually responds to these polls (big bias towards older, more conservative respondents)… and anyway, anyone who’s ever perused “Manufacturing Consent” or some similar critique of the mass media knows full well that the agenda of what is actually being polled/discussed is set by the powers that be (i.e. the REALL owners of the world).
    Polls demonstrating that the VAST majority of citizens in ALL countries support universal health care, comprehensive public education, an end to whatever unjust war is being fought at that given moment (currently Iraq & Afghanistan), that corporations shoulder a fairer share of the tax burden, and so on, and so forth.. well, these polls are simply ignored.
    Just another example of how “democracy” is manipulated and bastardised.
    “Go back to bed, America. Your government has figured out how it all
    transpired. Go back to bed, America. Your government is in control
    again. Here. Here’s American Gladiators. Watch this, shut up.”
    Sorry, couldn’t resist quoting Hicks…

21
More in Democracy, Media, Politics, polls, public opinion, Society, Sociology, Statistics
Rejection Feels Like Spilling Hot Coffee on Your Arm…

Accurate? Jen Doll writes in the Village Voice: ​Rejection hurts. Before you groan and sign and say "I know, I know, let me tell you about the time you-know-who did...

Close