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Public opinion


Public opinion consists of the desires, wants and thinking of the majority of the people. It is the collective opinion of the people of a society or state on an issue or problem.

Precursors of the phrase in English include William Temple's "general opinion" (appearing in his 1672 work On the Original and Nature of Government) and John Locke's "law of opinion" (appearing in his 1689 work An Essay Concerning Human Understanding).

The emergence of public opinion as a significant force in the political realm can be dated to the late 17th century. However, opinion had been regarded as having singular importance since far earlier. Medieval fama publica or vox et fama communis had great legal and social importance from the 12th and 13th centuries onward. Later, William Shakespeare called public opinion the "mistress of success" and Blaise Pascal thought it was "the queen of the world".

In his 1672 essay On the Original and Nature of Government, William Temple gave an early formulation of the importance of public opinion. He observed that "when vast numbers of men submit their lives and fortunes absolutely to the will of one, it must be force of custom, or opinion which subjects power to authority". Temple disagreed with the prevalent opinion that the basis of government lay in a social contract and thought that government was merely allowed to exist due to the favour of public opinion.

An institution of central importance in the development of public opinion, was the coffee-house, which became widespread throughout Europe in the mid-17th century. Although Charles II later tried to suppress the London coffeehouses as "places where the disaffected met, and spread scandalous reports concerning the conduct of His Majesty and his Ministers", the public flocked to them. For several decades following the Restoration, the Wits gathered round John Dryden at Will's Coffee House in Russell Street, Covent Garden. The coffee houses were great social levellers, open to all men and indifferent to social status, and as a result associated with equality and republicanism.

More generally, coffee houses became meeting places where business could be carried on, news exchanged and The London Gazette (government announcements) read. Lloyd's of London had its origins in a coffeehouse run by Edward Lloyd, where underwriters of ship insurance met to do business. By 1739, there were 551 coffeehouses in London. Each attracted a particular clientele divided by occupation or attitude, such as Tories and Whigs, wits and stockjobbers, merchants and lawyers, booksellers and authors, men of fashion or the "cits" of the old city center. Joseph Addison wanted to have it said of him that he had "brought philosophy out of closets and libraries to dwell in clubs and assemblies, at tea tables and in coffee houses". According to one French visitor, Antoine Fran+ois Pr+vost, coffeehouses, "where you have the right to read all the papers for and against the government", were the "seats of English liberty".

These social changes, in which a closed and largely illiterate public became an open and politicized one, was to become of tremendous political importance in the 19th century as the mass media was circulated ever more widely and literacy was steadily improved. Governments increasingly recognized the importance of managing and directing public opinion. This trend is exemplified in the career of George Canning who restyled his political career from its aristocratic origins to one of popular consent when he contested and won the parliamentary seat in Liverpool, a city with a growing and affluent middle class which he attributed to the growing influence of "public opinion".

German social theorist Jrgen Habermas contributed the idea of public sphere to the discussion of public opinion. According to Habermas, the public sphere, or bourgeois public, is where "something approaching public opinion can be formed" (2004, p. 351). Habermas claimed that the Public Sphere featured universal access, rational debate, and disregard for rank. However, he believes that these three features for how public opinion are best formed are no longer in place in western liberal democratic countries. Public opinion, in western democracy, is highly susceptible to elite manipulation.

The American sociologist Herbert Blumer has proposed an altogether different conception of the "public". According to Blumer, public opinion is discussed as a form of collective behavior (another specialized term) which is made up of those who are discussing a given public issue at any one time. Given this definition, there are many publics; each of them comes into being when an issue arises and ceases to exist when the issue is resolved. Blumer claims that people participate in public in different capacities and to different degrees. So, public opinion polling cannot measure the public. An educated individual's participation is more important than that of a drunk. The "mass" in which people independently make decisions about, for example, which brand of toothpaste to buy, is a form of collective behavior different from the public.

Numerous theories and substantial evidence exists to explain the formation and dynamics of individuals' opinions. Much of this research draws on psychological research on attitudes. In communications studies and political science, mass media are often seen as influential forces on public opinion. Additionally, political socialization and behavioral genetics sometimes explain public opinion.

Another key component in the formation of public opinion is framing. Framing is when a story or piece of news is portrayed in a particular way and is meant to sway the consumers attitude one way or the other. Most political issues are heavily framed in order to persuade voters to vote for a particular candidate. For example, if Candidate X once voted on a bill that raised income taxes on the middle class, a framing headline would read "Candidate X Doesn't Care About the Middle Class". This puts Candidate X in a negative frame to the news reader.

There have been a variety of academic studies investigating whether or not public opinion is influenced by "influentials", or persons that have a significant effect on influencing opinion of the general public regarding any relevant issues. Many early studies have modeled the transfer of information from mass media sources to the general public as a "two-step" process. In this process, information from mass media and other far-reaching sources of information influences influentials, and influentials then influence the general public as opposed to the mass media directly influencing the public.

The most pervasive issue dividing theories of the opinion-policy relation bears a striking resemblance to the problem of monism-pluralism in the history of philosophy. The controversy deals with the question of whether the structure of socio-political action should be viewed as a more or less centralized process of acts and decisions by a class of key leaders, representing integrated hierarchies of influence in society or whether it is more accurately envisaged as several sets of relatively autonomous opinion and influence groups, interacting with representative decision makers in an official structure of differentiated governmental authority. The former assumption interprets individual, group and official action as part of a single system and reduces politics and governmental policies to a derivative of three basic analytical terms: society, culture and personality.

Peoples judgments about issues are often based on heuristics, which are mental shortcuts that allow rational decisions to be made quickly. Heuristics apply to public opinion about domestic as well as foreign policy. The deductive heuristic is one that relies on a person's core values and social groups. Delegative heuristics are influenced by figures of authority such as the media or president.

A study by James N. Druckman and Lawrence R. Jacobs discusses how presidents collect their information for policymaking. They found that on one hand, they collect data about the public's preference on salient matters like crime and economy. This reflects a populist type of democracy where the government portrays respect toward the people's views and they are connected. On the other hand, government institutions and elites believe the general populations understanding of certain issued is limited, therefore they exercise autonomy when making these decisions.




 

 

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