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Public opinion is the aggregate of individual attitudes or beliefs held by the adult population.
Public opinion developed as a concept with the rise of a 'public' in the eighteenth century. The English term ‘public opinion’ dates from the eighteenth century and derives from the French ‘l’opinion publique’, first used by Montaigne two centuries earlier in 1588. This came about through urbanisation and other political and social forces. It became important what people thought as forms of political contention changed.
Jeremy Bentham was the first English writer to develop theories of public opinion. He reasonsed that public opinion had the power to ensure that rulers would rule for the greatest happiness of the greater number.
Using the conceptional tools of his theory of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, the German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies argued (1922, "Kritik der öffentlichen Meinung"), that 'public opinion' has the equivalent social functions in societies (Gesellschaften) which religion has in communities (Gemeinschaften).
The German philosopher Jürgen Habermas contributed the idea of "Public Sphere" to the discussion of public opinion. Public Sphere, as he argued, is where “something approaching public opinion can be formed”(2004, p.351). It is featured as universal access, rational debate, and disregard for rank. However, these three features for how public opinion SHOULD be formed are not in place in western democracy. Public opinion is highly susceptible to elite manipulation.
Herbert Blumer, American sociolologist, has proposed a somewhat different conception of the "public," 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 since people participate in a public to different degrees, public opinion polling cannot measure the public: An archbishop's participation is more important than that of a bum. 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.
Public opinion can be influenced by public relations and the political media. Additionally, mass media utilizes a wide variety of advertising techniques to get their message out and change the minds of people. A continuously used technique is propaganda.
The tide of public opinion becomes more and more crucial during political elections, most importantly elections determining the national executive.
It is frequently measured using the method of survey sampling.
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