Public opinion doesn't exist - Shock and horror as ruling class tells us what we think


Last month, a Red-C opinion poll in the Irish Examiner stated that some 48% of the 1,010 adults surveyed believe that Ireland should continue complying with the terms and conditions of the EU/IMF bailout. Somehow this translated into the headline “Majority of public want us to obey bailout”. On the poll’s own premises, this statement is untrue, unless 48 is now greater than 52 per cent. To be sure, opinion polls aren’t necessarily false. In terms of straight-forward questions about people’s intended behaviour - like “how will you vote in the next referendum?” - their accuracy tends to be borne out in subsequent voting patterns. However, when more complicated questions come into play, like those concerning Ireland’s compliance with an EU/IMF bailout, opinion polling, as a mode of honest inquiry, starts to encounter serious limitations.

“Nobody’s Unpredictable”
- Orwellian tagline for marketing research company, Ipsos

In “Public opinion does not exist”, the French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu challenges the practice’s three most basic shortcomings, namely the assumptions
(1) that everyone surveyed can and does have an opinion on the question asked;
(2) that everyone’s opinion is equally valid and
(3) that everyone has agreed on what questions are important and worthy of our attention.

Assumptions one and two can be rejected largely on the grounds that in the real world, most people work for a living. Consequently, opportunities for acquiring the kinds of knowledge presupposed by the questionnaire are very unevenly distributed. The chances of meaningful assessment are further limited when specialised knowledge is required to assess complex social practices, particularly when much of that information is privately owned, deliberately withheld or ideologically obscured.

Assumption three, however, is by far the most cunning. By taking-as-given a collective decision on what question to ask, pollsters side-step one of the major problems of political action - deciding what may be presented as a collective opinion. Instead, they name “public” or collective something which is, in reality, merely a statistical aggregation of privately, individually expressed views. This basically liberal assumption identifies political action with solitary action, its paradigm being the vote acquired by a party in the secret of the polling booth. Opinion polls based on this assumption cannot provide a “neutral” representation of the social world. Instruments of political action, they are readily press-ganged into the service of the ruling class.

Opinion polling redefines the political. Media agents, by no means free of private market interests, now supposedly know – better than ‘the representatives of the people’ – what the people want and think. Politicians invoke the phantom of ‘public opinion’ to provide a pseudo-mandate for policies that the powerful have already decided to implement. Opinions polls make their job of defending the dictatorial easier by settling issues without collective discussion or questioning. Opponents are inevitably placed on the back foot. Used often enough, opinion polling undermines alternative means of expressing group-opinion, particularly (and not coincidentally) strikes and demonstrations. The key difference, of course, is that these assemblies constitute mobilised, living opinion. Until the expropriators of group opinion are themselves expropriated, “public opinion” must be recognised for what it is – a fig-leaf for class rule whose counterpart is solidarity in practice.

WORDS: Tom Murray