The social construction of Public Opinion (2016)Apunte Inglés
Summary of the Krippendorff article "The social construction of public opinion". General abstract and specific analysis on each subtitle.
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The social construction of Public Opinion; by Klaus Klippendorf
Public opinion is a process, an open dialogue in which equal individual of similar interests
interact; it can’t be considered an entity above the individuals composing it, neither a unit that
thinks nor acts by itself. Generally polls are considered the best mechanism to measure public
opinion, which are not. They analyze independent and mixed individuals in a hierarchical and
closed conversation with a contracted interviewer. Plus, poll industry is tied to political and
economic interests that make it be far from objective. The scientific measurement of data from
an analytical point of view is a mistake because it forgets the social component of public opinion.
Even if they do not truly express public opinion, polls take part of the public opinion system and can have a wide impact over it.
1. What is “public opinion”? It is difficult to define as there is no consensus over the matter.
Etymologically: “Opinion”: owing one’s thoughts, being able to have preferences “Public”: accessible to all, not restricted to private use Public opinion as a term was created in the XVIII Century functioning similar to “public tribunal” as a way to invoke people’s legitimacy in the public sphere (originally, the coffee houses and cafes, where everyone could peak as equals; opinion was constructed out of a dialogue). Thus, it is a social construction (not of natural origin) and nowadays has a huge power over us. What has turned it into a powerful weapon is the process of “personification”, considering the public as a whole that can think, speak or act. This has created an entity over individuals coordinating their decisions.
Originally, public opinion was not a result, an entity like it is nowadays; but a process of understanding.
2. How to measure public opinion It is contested as well if public opinion can be or not properly measured. The most typical measurement are the opinion polls. If they were suitable for public opinion the result should accurately represent the measured object, but the truth is that different polls analyzing the same aspect are many times contradictory to each other. That is why the reliability and validity of polls is questioned. First of all because of the subject and environment of the study itself: for a more accurate result they should ask active agents, such as riots, meetings, lobbies… And second of all, because again it generalize the subject. Is there something to be measured if, as we previously explained, public opinion is not an entity, a superior whole that can think for itself? Pollsters differ not only because of its theoretical incoherence from basis, but also because of the way the questions are formulated. But if they aren’t showing the real public opinion, what do pollsters really do? 3. The mechanic of pollsters Pollsters consist on a set of identical questions asked to different individuals. The reason why they don’t show the reality of public opinion is that in this relation the interpersonal connection of the dialogue is suppressed, subjects are asked individually thus showing their personal opinion, not the public one. Another problem is the selection of the subjects of the study in a cross-section way. Public opinion is a social construction inside groups with similar interests, and thus can’t be measured when colliding individual answers from diverse opinions all together.
Another big problem are the answers: they are only a few (those that interest the pollsters) and are previously formulated. As a result, pollsters will show what interviewers want to show.
As a summary, pollsters consists of an unnatural communication unlikely to happen in the public sphere and thus, unable to arise real public opinion. This is reflected in the hierarchical position of the interviewer that forces the interviewee to answer according to what he expects are the “right answers”. This dependence between one’s opinion and the others is not the same as in natural public opinion building processes, because there is some sort of “contract” the interviewee has to fulfill, thus contradicting the most basic rule of public opinion itself that is the equal status of the members taking part of the communication process.
4. Analytical procedures in public opinion When polls are published, analysts work with the data as if they were independent phenomenon not correlated and organize the answers freely, which is a mistake as public opinion is a matter of collectives, not individuals. This can be proven with two examples: electoral polls and marketing polls. As the electoral process (one person one vote) is itself an individual one, polls prove to be more concise as the electoral date comes, when people have already made their choice and the collective indicators are not so relevant over their decision. Still, they usually commit mistakes. Marketing polls are also more concise when the purchasing is individual, between one customer and the product. The reality is that, technically, we can’t call this “public opinion” as such.
5. Economic ties But if it has been proven unsuccessful, why do we rely on polls? Because of economic and political interests. Results have to fit political interests and certain financial sources, reason why individual interviews are still used when analyzing “public” opinion. They are cheaper, shorter and using mechanic and scientific measures gain the trust of the clients 6. Do pollsters create public opinion? Pollsters always affect or creates public opinion in some way, which depend highly on whether they are public or not.
Private polls are paid by institutions with strategic interests. They usually request more than mere interviews (e.g.: psychological experiments). Even if they are private, actions taken based on them can affect future polling results. They don’t create “public opinion” as they don’t work at the public sphere, but they do have certain consequences on the public behavior.
On the other hand, public polls can affect public opinion on three levels: they are usually the only way to know about other individuals and institutions opinions; they can be taken as the truth or right as the contrary; and they can make it easier to know how to behave in a certain group of opinion. As a result, even if they might not reflect public opinion, at the end they may be able to construct it. The mass media is the great responsible of this as it is the channel.
7. Then, what is the public sphere? Shall we, because of this misinterpretation of data, position pollers and scientists outside the public sphere in which public opinion emerges? The answer is no. As any organic social system, not even those who study it can escape from its mechanisms. The reality is that no one shall have total control over public opinion, and this can only occur when all the subjects of the system enjoy of a free competence over it. It doesn’t matter if one wish to impose over the rest because the equilibrium will prevail and when dialogue is forbidden, civil disobedience will open the space for the debate again.