Dictionnaire de la Science Politique

Authors: Hermet, Badie, Birnbaum & Braud
Summary: In this short entry of less than 400 words the authors give a brief definition of the term and draw a developmental analysis of the concept.
The concept of public opinion refers to a set of socially constructed representations which people form about contemporary issues. In reality public opinion does not exist since it is impossible that every member of a group has, at the same time, an opinion about any topic much as it is impossible to assess exactly its intensity. Indeed, it is difficult to establish whether it is a conviction, an impression or an improvisation.
The broad usage of the concept is linked to the need for political power to mould people consensus to its own advantage, in order to obtain greater legitimacy than that afforded by the sources identified by Max Weber (strength, religion, tradition). Accordingly, the concept announces the coming of the democratic era.
A developmental analysis of the concept reveals that in the XVII century, public opinion was made up with court rumours, in the XVIII century it was transformed into the opinion of notable thinkers who, thanks to their undisputed authority, acted as whom we now call "opinion leaders". Nowadays, the scientific character of the polls as well as the capacity to anticipate electoral results have introduced new dimensions, transforming public opinion into the idea of citizens' perception and judgement.