The aggregation of the views of individuals in society. The idea of public opinion has roots in Western political thought that go back to the eighteenth century, although related ideas go back earlier and can even be found in the works of Plato and Aristotle. The term public opinion is derived from the concept of l'opinion publique popularized by Rousseau.
Analysts continue to be divided on a precise definition of the concept. Traditional definitions of public opinion had stressed the influence of elites and those best informed in society. The advent of scientific survey techniques in the early twentieth century led to a proliferation in the empirical analysis of public opinion. Based on the laws of probability sampling, opinion polls enabled a measurement of public opinion that represented the population. This view of public opinion was espoused by George Gallup who suggested that public opinion was the average opinion that could be measured by summing up the opinions of every individual in society to form an aggregate opinion. Polling enabled public opinion to be measured relatively accurately and continuously, but not without reservations. V. O. Key summed up the difficulty in accurately measuring public opinion when remarking that ‘to speak with precision of public opinion is a task not unlike coming to grips with the Holy Ghost’ (1961). Public opinion is very closely tied to the democratic process since it forms a link between the mass of the people and their leaders. It is seen as a means of informing decision‐makers of the will of the people, especially towards public policy.
Sean D. Carey