Source Book for Sociology

Author: Kimball Young  | Date: 1934

185. The Nature of Public Opinion9

In a very broad sense all social control within a group rests upon public sentiments and opinions or beliefs. The mores themselves are but those sentiments and beliefs and their corresponding actions which are given final societal or group approval. The law is but a more conscious, deliberate, and formalized codification of these sentiments, beliefs, and practices backed by that force or power of the organized community which we call the state.

In sociology, however, we have rather tended to consider public opinion in a somewhat narrower manner as that form of consensus and difference of opinions or beliefs within a group which revolves around some social problem. Public opinion may be said to form whenever an issue is defined about which there may be both difference and agreement. Where dictatorships exist, the official organs of the dominant minority are concerned with producing those opinions in the masses which the leaders and minority wish. That is to say, public opinion in the stricter sense of discussion of issues is limited to this dominant minority. In the following selection Park and Burgess discuss some important aspects of public opinion as it develops in modern societies where freedom of communication is fairly well established.

"There is an intimate relation between the mores and opinion. The mores represent the attitudes in which we agree. Opinion represents 532 these attitudes in so far as we do not agree. We do not have opinions except over matters which are in dispute.

"So far as we are controlled by habit and custom, by the mores, we do not have opinions. I find out what my opinion is only after I discover that I disagree with my fellow. What I call my opinions are for the most part invented to justify my agreements or disagreements with prevailing public opinion. The mores do not need justification. As soon as I seek justification for them they have become matters of opinion.

"Public opinion is just the opinion of individuals plus their differences. There is no public opinion where there is no substantial agreement. But there is no public opinion where there is not disagreement. Public opinion presupposes public discussion. When a matter has reached the stage of public discussion it becomes a matter of public opinion."10

In an earlier publication the present writer has attempted to summarize the nature of public opinion:

"Public opinion is formed by verbalized attitudes, beliefs, and convictions, which are essentially emotional, and their associated images and ideas. It is formulated in a crisis when people differ in their definitions of new situations. It frequently happens that two or more especially interested groups become the ’storm centers’ of the discussion of public issues. The wider public or publics often remain in the rôle of interested spectators, backing first one group or position regarding the issue, then another. The weight of the sentiment of this larger spectator public, however, usually plays the deciding part in finally formulating the majority opinion or general consensus. [See Chapter XXI, Selection 147, on the role of public opinion in a strike situation.]

"The amount of rational and scientific discussion in public opinion is small, although in special groups, of course, opinion is occasionally based on fact and logic. But even the public opinion based on fact is usually, in the end, incorporated into the larger schema provided by emotional attitudes. We circulate public opinion by conversation and gossip and by various modern organs of communication, especially the newspaper and radio. Undoubtedly in our opinions about subjects not geographically near us, the secondary organs of news and opinion are most essential in furnishing the material for face-to-face discussion and comment. But the newspaper and radio do not entirely create public opinion. Though they arouse our prejudices, myths, and legends, they themselves equally reflect the currents of belief and conviction which are the results of direct social intercommunication. Social interaction in public affairs obviously depends upon both facts and their interpretations; the newspapers and other organs of opinion furnish us with both. They influence the direction which our public opinion takes, but they themselves have already been influenced by our common attitudes. In short, public opinion rises to its highest intensity when as groups we are faced with issues, when our old frames of behavior are breaking down. Because these 533 ancient patterns are deeply engrained in us, it is impossible for our opinions not to be influenced by our emotional attitudes. Finally, when a consensus of opinion is attained, we may proceed to action as a group. And once we have consensus or action or both, new forms of social control begin to develop."11

9 Selection prepared by Kimball Young, with appropriate quotations.

10 From R. E. Park and E. W. Burgess, Introduction to the Science of Sociology, 1924 ed., p. 832. By permission of The University of Chicago Press, publishers.

11 From Kimball Young, Social Psychology, 1930, pp. 580–81. Slightly modified from the original.


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Chicago: Kimball Young, "185. The Nature of Public Opinion," Source Book for Sociology in Source Book for Sociology, ed. Kimball Young (Cincinnati: American Book Company, 1935), Original Sources, accessed April 26, 2018,

MLA: Young, Kimball. "185. The Nature of Public Opinion." Source Book for Sociology, in Source Book for Sociology, edited by Kimball Young, Cincinnati, American Book Company, 1935, Original Sources. 26 Apr. 2018.

Harvard: Young, K, '185. The Nature of Public Opinion' in Source Book for Sociology. cited in 1935, Source Book for Sociology, ed. , American Book Company, Cincinnati. Original Sources, retrieved 26 April 2018, from