How Do We Know What The Public Think?

The difficulties in knowing what the public wants and thinks is a conundrum that is faced by politicians, policymakers, activists, and academics. However, these political actors understand and study the public in very different ways, from nationally representative surveys, to studies of small, localised groups. Acknowledging these varying perspectives matters because it is common for references to ‘the public’ and subsequently public opinion, to be used when demonstrating the legitimacy of conflicting views. The implications of this often result differences public opinion is applied by political actors, and the subsequent policies that are formed. To investigate these differences, we carried a project over the summer of 2019 to understand the following:

  1. How do political actors at different levels understand public opinion?

  2. Why does political opinion matter to political actors?

  3. Does the use of social media change the way public opinion is measured?

This project was funded by the SURE Scheme and run by Dr Nikki Soo, together with second year undergraduate Charlie Heywood-Heath, and assistance from Dr Kate Dommett and Dr Alexandra Anderson. This project is part of an ongoing strand of research ‘Studying the Public’ carried out by the Crick Centre, where we tackle what the public means and methods used to study it.

The following report is an outcome of our project. It explores how public opinion emerged as a concept and its role in democracy before delving into our research. We discuss how public opinion is viewed differently across different political actors and how this shaped our research study, and what we found during our investigation. At the end of the report we discuss the significance of these findings and distill a few questions for future research and stimulate dialogue, as well as a reading list of papers we found using during our discussion.

For any questions, please contact Dr Nikki Soo.

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