September 6, 2013, by Harry Cocks

Public Opinion/Public Policy

According to Abraham Lincoln, “public opinion is everything.”  A massive industry now exists to measure public opinion – organisations like YouGov, Gallup, and Ipsos MORI, as well as companies devoted to organising focus groups to test everything from instant soup to the policies of major political parties.  And that is without mentioning informal (and misleading) guides to the public mind such as Twitter, Facebook or other internet forums that the media frequently rely on to gauge what matters.  However, is public opinion merely an ideological construct, selectively regarded and deployed by the powerful, or is there something actually there – a sort of collective will or  the combined opinions of “most people” – which can actually be measured?  It often seems that politicians of all kinds form policy in a selective response to particular triggers – at the moment the editorial pages of the Daily Mail seem to be treated as a politician’s best guess as to the mentality of “middle England.”

Assessing public opinion is and was a vital task for the political classes. However, gauging the influence of “public opinion” on politicians of the past is no simple matter as the mechanisms we now use to measure it did not exist in the same form.  Consequently, there is considerable reluctance amongst historians – particularly international and diplomatic historians – to explore the influence of public opinion on foreign policy decision-making.  In the absence of scientifically-rigorous opinion polls (although the reliability of such polls must surely be questioned), what evidence is there? Newspapers, minutes of meetings, official and personal correspondence, etc. – all provide a glimpse into public attitudes, but they all fail to capture ‘public opinion’ in its entirety. Little wonder, then, that historians are disinclined to make any firm statements about it. But this need not be the case. In a new article for the International History Review, (see link below) Dr Dan Hucker of Nottingham’s History department implores international historians to embrace more adventurous methodological approaches to the study of public opinion. In particular, he suggests, the work on ‘social representations’ pioneered by social psychologists can be used profitably by historians. ‘Social representations’ are how we – as groups and individuals – perceive the complex world around us, and attribute meaning and values to it. They help explain how a concept as slippery and heterogeneous as public opinion is condensed down into something tangible to which policymakers can respond. Such a methodological tool can identify those ‘triggers’ (or dominant ‘representations’) that informed the perceptions of public opinion held by the policymakers of the past. Crucially, such ‘representations’ need not be accurate; authentic opinions can be overlooked, misrepresented or misunderstood, even manipulated by unscrupulous opinion shapers. But this is unimportant when the aim is to uncover public opinion’s place in the decision-making process. Recreating the social universe of policymakers reveals which strands of opinion were perceived and responded to, whether accurately conveying the vox populi or not.

Daniel Hucker, ‘International History and the Study of Public Opinion: Towards Methodological Clarity’ The International History Review 34/4 (2012): 775-94.



Posted in British EmpireForeign policyHistory and theoryPoliticspublic opinionSocial history