It is an article of faith that democracies represent the will of the populace, and therefore must be cognizant of public opinion. But this was not always the case. Before the Enlightenment (18th century) sovereigns believed that they ruled by divine will, not popular will. The signing of Magna Carta in 1215 had confirmed the principle that royalty were subject to some constraint (the opinion of other landed aristocrats). However, the next step, the idea that nations must operate according to a social contract between the governed and the government, would take another 500 years to take hold.

Attending theaters, living in urban areas, going to coffee houses, and reading newspapers all helped to give people the sense that they were part of “a public.” Wealth and education provided the public with more opportunity to congregate and more ideas to talk about. As Europe gained a middle class who participated in discussion of current affairs, governments began to listen to them more. At first this involved domestic affairs, then foreign affairs. The article below goes into more detail about the way public opinion emerged and became one of the cornerstones of modernity.

Read the information in the following article:

Speier, H. (1950).Historical Development of Public Opinion,American Journal of Sociology, 55, 4. 376-388

Answer the following questions:

  1. How does Speier define public opinion?
  2. Until the French Revolution writers feared that the public at large were unreliable due to superstition, prejudice, and excess passion. Who did earlier writers believe was likely to hold reasonable opinions?
  3. What does Speier mean when he says that “Public opinion is a phenomenon of middle-class civilization”?
  4. What new ways to circulate information helped the new middle class learn about current affairs?

SLP Assignment Expectations

In Module 3 SLP, you are expected to:

  • Answer the questions clearly, using full sentences with correct grammar and spelling.
  • Write one or two paragraphs on each question.