How sociology lost public opinion: A genealogy of a missing concept in the study of the political

Jeff Manza, Clem Brooks

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

    Abstract

    In contemporary sociology the once prominent study of public opinion has virtually disappeared. None of the leading theoretical models in the closest disciplinary subfield (political sociology) currently provide ample or sufficiently clear space for consideration of public opinion as a possible factor in shaping or interacting with key policy or political outcomes in democratic polities. In this article, we unearth and document the sources of this curious development and raise questions about its implications for how political sociologists have come to understand policy making, state formation, and political conflict. We begin by reconstructing the dismissal of public opinion in the intellectual reorientation of political sociology from the late 1970s onward. We argue that the most influential scholarly works of this period (including those of Tilly, Skocpol, Mann, Esping-Andersen, and Domhoff) face an underlying paradox: While often rejecting public opinion, their theoretical logics ultimately presuppose its operation. These now classical writings did not move toward research programs seeking engagement with the operation and formation of public opinion, even though our immanent critique suggests they in fact require precisely this turn. We address the challenge of reconceptualizing how public opinion might be productively integrated into the sociological study of politics by demonstrating that the major arguments in the subfield can be fruitfully extended by grappling with public opinion. We conclude by considering several recent, interdisciplinary examples of scholarship that, we argue, point the way toward a fruitful revitalization.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Pages (from-to)89-113
    Number of pages25
    JournalSociological Theory
    Volume30
    Issue number2
    DOIs
    StatePublished - Jun 1 2012

      Fingerprint

    Keywords

    • culture
    • democracy
    • political sociology
    • public opinion

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Sociology and Political Science

    Cite this