Public-Opin-Q-1952-BERELSON-313-30.pdf - Democratic Theory...

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Democratic Theory and Public Opinion BY BERNARD BERELSON Public opinion research has sometimes been Mr. Berelson's interest in this topic has de- neglectful of both the political content of its veloped out of, and is expressed in, the Elmira data and the extent to which it could vitalize study of opinion formation during the Presi- the theory of democratic politics. dential campaign of 1948. In the preparation In this, his Presidential Address before the of this paper, he has benefited from discussions seventh annual convention of the American with Edward Shils, his former colleague at the Association for Public Opinion Research, Ber- University of Chicago, and from his reading nard Berelson restates the fundamental require- of Mr. Shils' manuscript on Consensus and ments of a democratic politic and points out Liberty: The Social and Psychological Condi- how opinion research can help a democracy tions of Political Democracy. to know itself, evaluate its achievements, and At present, Mr. Berelson is Director of the bring its practices more nearly in accord with Behavioral Sciences Division of the Ford Foun- its own fundamental ideals. dation. J. HE field of public opinion research has had a number of intellectual godparents. Psychologists have contributed their experience with atti- tude and intelligence tests and measurements, as well as substantive concepts and propositions. Sociologists have provided experience with field and community studies and ideas about social structure and the place of opinion within it. Market research has developed new tech- niques and furnished a variety of practical problems on which to try them. The statisticians have worked on such problems as sampling and scaling. But my subject is the claim of political theory to contribute to the character of public opinion research. It would be too much to say that it has played no role thus far. For a good many years the political scientists have been discussing the nature of public opinion and the role it plays in the political process. But somehow, in recent years, we have tended to overlook the related facts that there is a political content in what we call public opinion; that there exists a long and elegant intellectual tradition (in the form of the political theory of democracy) for dealing with opinion prob- lems; and that this theory provides a helpful framework for the organi- zation and conduct of opinion studies. The normative theory of polit- ical democracy makes certain requirements of the citizen and certain at AAPOR Member Access on March 8, 2016 Downloaded from
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3H PUBLIC OPINION QUARTERLY, FALL 1952 assumptions about his capacity to meet them. The tools of social research have made it possible, for the first time, to determine with reasonable precision and objectivity the extent to which the practice of politics by the citizens of a democratic state conforms to the require- ments and the assumptions of the theory of democratic politics (insofar as it refers to decisions by the electorate). The closer collaboration of
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