Public Opinion

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Public Opinion

 

a state of mass consciousness encompassing people’s attitudes (covert or overt) toward events and facts of social reality and toward the activities of different groups and individuals. Public opinion performs expressive control, consultative, and prescriptive functions; it takes definite positions and provides counsel or makes decisions on social problems. Depending on the issue at hand, public opinion makes evaluative, analytical, or constructive judgments. It controls the behavior of individuals, social groups, and social institutions—developing, or assimilating from other spheres (science, ideology, religion) and propagating, particular norms of social relations. Finally, public opinion expresses positive or negative judgments.

Public opinion operates in virtually all spheres of society. At the same time, its scope is rather precisely defined. Only those facts and events that evoke public interest and are significant and topical emerge as the objects of expressions of public opinion.

Public opinion operates both within society as a whole and within different classes and social groups. In this sense, it is possible to speak not only of the public opinion of a whole country but also of that of the working class, young people, a republic or a raion, the members of a certain profession, the workers of a given enterprise, or the members of a given organization. As applied to the designated groups, the bearer (subject) of public opinion may be the community as a whole; or it may be any of the groups of which the community is composed— regardless of the content of the judgments or regardless of whether the group expresses itself “for” or “against” or constitutes a majority or a minority. Accordingly, public opinion may be by its structure monistic, unanimous, or pluralistic, in which case it consists of several points of view which are not in agreement.

In every concrete instance, the content and other characteristics of public opinion (such as the degree of uniformity and the directionality) are determined by a number of factors, including the structure (primarily the social structure) of the community expressing an opinion, the degree to which the interests of the various groups within the community coincide, and the nature of the issue being discussed. The formation and functioning of public opinion may be spontaneous and independent of social institutions, but most often public opinion is the result of the purposeful action of various state institutions, political organizations, and scientific and other communities.

Forming at different levels of social consciousness—at the level of theoretical knowledge (science) and of day-to-day consciousness—and reflecting the diverse interests of various social groups, public opinion may be to a greater or lesser extent true or false, adequate or illusory.

In a developed society, the usual channels and forms for the expression of public opinion include elections for governmental bodies; mass participation in legislative and executive functions; the press and other means of mass communication; meetings; and demonstrations. Political, research, and similar interests often prompt expressions of public opinion through referenda, mass discussions of problems, conferences of specialists, and selective polls.

The level of intensity at which public opinion functions and its actual significance in the life of a society are determined by existing social conditions—(1) general conditions, which are related to the nature of productive relations, the class structure of the society, the level of development of productive forces and culture, and so forth, and (2) specific conditions, which are related to the stage of development of democratic institutions and freedoms, above all, the freedom to express opinions—freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, and of demonstrations. Guarantees of the efficacy of public opinion are also of enormous importance.

In the capitalist society of today, public opinion is formed first of all under the influence of bourgeois sources of information and propaganda. It is utilized by the ruling classes in a system of

ideological control, which includes as one of its means the manipulation of people’s consciousness.

Under socialism—in the context of the elimination of social antagonisms, qualitative changes in the social structure and culture, and the establishment of the sociopolitical and ideological unity of society—the public opinion of the working class, the peasantry, and the intelligentsia is unified on the fundamental problems of social development and is expressed by the Communist Party and other public organizations of working people. Public opinion is an active force in state and public administration, included directly in the process of decision-making by governmental bodies. This historically new role for public opinion is increasing in proportion to the development of society, in conjunction with changes in the economic, social, political, technical, and other conditions affecting the functioning of public opinion. Public opinion’s new role is reflected in the growing complexity of its functions, the expansion of the limits of the problems it judges, and the increasing depth and competency of its modes of expression.

REFERENCES

Lenin, V. I. “Posle vyborov v Amerike.” Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 22.
Lenin, V. I. “Gosudarstvo i revoliutsiia.” Ibid., vol. 33.
Lenin, V. I. “Ocherednye zadachi Sovetskoi vlasti.” Ibid., vol. 36.
Lenin, V. I. “Pervonachal’nyi variant stat’i ‘Ocherednye zadachi Sovetskoi vlasti.’” Ibid.
Lenin, V. I. “Proletarskaia revoliutsiia i renegat Kautskii.” Ibid., vol. 37.
Kelle, V. Zh., and M. Ia. Koval’zon. Formy obshchestvennogo soznaniia. Moscow, 1959.
Uledov, A. K. Obshchestvennoe mnenie sovetskogo obshchestva. Moscow, 1963.
Grushin, B. A. Mneniia o mire i mir mnenii. Moscow, 1967.
Bogardus, E. The Making of Public Opinion. New York, 1951.
Reader in Public Opinion and Communication, 2nd ed. Edited by B. R. Berelson and M. Janowitz. New York, 1953.
Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues: Public Opinion and Propaganda. Edited by D. Katz [et al.] New York, 1954.
Sauvy, A. L’Opinion publique. Paris, 1956.
Stoetzel, J., and A. Girard. Les Sondages d’opinion publique. Paris, 1973.

B. A. GRUSHIN

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