The Phantom Public

Walter Lippmann, in his 1925 classic, refers to the phenomenon public opinion as a phantom. He does not question with this name its existence, let alone its power. Public opinion can be compared with a phantom because it is impossible to apprehend and always appears in different ways - with different skins, as Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann put it.

The most dramatic consequence of public opinion’s phantom-like character is the difficulty to define it. Harwood Childs, in his book “Public Opinion: Nature, Formation, and Role” (1965) gathered up to 50 definitions of the phenomenon, without being able to point out one of them as the definitive one. Some of those definitions even contradict each other. They obviously refer to two different phenomena.

On the one hand, we find the notion promoted by the German sociologist Jürgen Habermas in his Strukturwandel der Gesellschaft. Habermas placed the dawn of public opinion (öffentliche Meinung) in the British enlightened society of the XVIII century. According to him, this society generated a public sphere (Öffentlichkeit) which is necessary for the apparition of public opinion. Public opinion, according to Habermas, originated then from the free exchange of ideas among intellectual elites in this ideal public sphere, free from any kind of political or ideological pressure. In this sense, public opinion became a counterpart of the political or social power, a parallel discourse, which, through a public use of individual reasoning, could supervise the use of power.

Opposed to this enlightened and elitist version of public opinion, another understanding of the phenomenon co-exists. The most ardent advocate of this second conception is the also German scholar Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann . According to this author, public opinion, although also a correlate to political power, works in a totally different way. In her standard work, Die Schweigespirale (The Spiral of Silence), Noelle-Neumann depicts public opinion as a moral authority that rules over ideas, expressions and behaviors. The main function of this public opinion is to give the society the cohesion that is necessary to subsist.

Despite all the different façades public opinion shows, it always acts as a guardian of social order, or, to put it a Edward L. Ross, as an agent of social control. In every cell of human coexistence, public opinion will spontaneously arise. One essential aspect of my research activity is to explain the social mechanisms through which public opinion works and the origin of its power over the individual will.