Forward to Ferdinand Tonnies, A Theory of Public Opinion.
Translated by H. Hardt and S. Splichal.  Rowman and Littlefield, 2000.

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By Gary T. Marx

What can you say about an under-read author who is prescient, sharply analytic, empirically observant and deftly encyclopedic, who writes elegantly with a moral vision on issues that are more relevant today than they were when written 80 years ago? Read him!

Ferdinand Tonnies is the kind of guy I would love to have met and learned from, whether in a European salon or an American saloon. As with the leading thinkers of his day and in contrast to the narrowly specialized scholars of ours, he had an immense scholarly range from Greek and Latin and European history to knowledge of then-current contemporary thought across a variety of social and cultural fields in Germany, as well as in France, England and the United States.

Tonnies’ enormous body of work is largely unknown to the English speaking world. This is as true of his work on the media as his extensive writings on culture, religion, social movements, social ecology, social mores and crime. Indeed a recent bibliography lists more than 900 works, only a handful of which are available in English.

Professors Hanno Hardt and Slavko Splichal have performed a useful service for students of the history of social thought, modernization, communication, public opinion, and critical media studies by making this work available in English, contextually locating it and adding fuller bibliographic references. They keep enough original examples to give a sense for his style without overwhelming the reader with unfamiliar historical detail.

Given the values of the Enlightenment and the ideals of the French revolution, Tonnies asked (and joined) many of the right intellectual and moral questions. His answers in the form of richly illustrated classification schemes and a relatively coherent approach to public opinion are related to his broader conception of modern society.

His knowledge of the natural sciences and his sure touch with metaphor and analogy make him a pleasure to read. He writes of the bursting of "opinion bubbles", notes that, "public opinion lacks a specific space and time. It spreads like a fog…" He writes of the stream of anti-Semitic propaganda which "leaves its banks at times of public election," observes that "the press is free, but not its journalists" and draws on a reference to journalists as "prostitutes of the intellect."

He had an expansive conception of the factors that shaped and made up public opinion and the media. Here he is reminiscent of Erving Goffman who urged us to see symbolic data everywhere. Beyond the usual mass media suspects, Tonnies looked for meaning in graffiti, posters, theater, hissing, applauding, and even raising flags and ringing bells as forms of demonstration. Understanding the mood of the people and the search for public opinion also required attending to the work of actors, painters, sculptors, architects and musicians, all of whom effect taste and opinions, if indirectly.

Consistent with scholars such as Max Weber, Emile Durkheim and others who observed the transition from a more consensual traditional to a more discordant urban industrial society, he sought means to understand and channel social change of staggering magnitude. And consistent with the social control/guidance concerns of early 20th century sociologists such as E.A. Ross in the United States, public opinion was seen as an important mechanism for this.

The concepts for which he is best known in English are of course community and society "Gemeinschaft" and "Gesellschaft.") These are differentiated partly by their mode of communication --traditional handed-down beliefs vs. public opinion that is more rationally and scientifically based and grows out of reflection and discussion.

He used the central concept of public opinion and related forms to generate a way of thinking about societies and social change that is still useful. Further, unlike most contemporary scholars, he joined intellectual and moral questions and believed that normative ideals could be found within the empirical. He was hopeful that under the right conditions (that is as practiced by the well-educated and divorced from one-sided and self-interested media accounts), public opinion would serve as a guide for social betterment. He appreciated the intimate and intricate link between public opinion and democracy.

In Tonnies' usage an opinion expressed in public is not public opinion. Nor are opinion polls which reveal many publics with diverse opinions the same thing as general public opinion. The latter is defined by its consensual nature. It may be strong or weak. A firm public opinion is more characteristic of values and broad principles than of current events. Firm opinion has a normative quality and exerts social pressure.

Anyone interested in the history of the field of collective behavior and social movements must start with Tonnies and his claim that "holding and expressing opinions is an interactive process." In the United States this field grew out of the work of Robert Park and Herbert Blumer at the University of Chicago. Park studied in Germany at the turn of the Century and wrote his thesis on the crowd and the public, although Tonnies does not refer to it here.

A central concern of this field is to study the processes through which individuals come together to form a public with a common focus. Their behavior is "emergent" and to a degree fluid and not guided in detail by the conventional culture. Through interaction individuals grapple with how best to respond to novel or contentious situations lacking resolution, such as the disruption following a natural disaster or lack of agreement on a society’s system of stratification.

Tonnies writing of "the dispersed audience" and "the large public" consisting of "spiritually [rather than spatially] connected" individuals reminds us that many of the themes now associated with cyberspace have origins in the emergence of national mass societies and earlier technologies such as the printing press, telephone and film which link scattered individuals. He noted the potential of the modern press system to eviscerate national borders and create a world culture and single market. Current national states were but a transitory phenomena in light of a truly international Gesellschaft."

Tonnies was alert to the factors that effected audience reception of a message including the sound of words as well as content and anticipating the concept of "reference group," he wrote of "the opinion circles of recipients." He identified an embryonic concept of "opinion leader" and he also noted the strong impact the "personality" of the message deliverer could have. His analysis of propaganda stressing slogans, the sharpening of contrasts and the importance of repetition anticipates work that was to come several decades later.

His work is an early example and implicit call for critical studies of the media. He directs attention to the role of opinion leaders in helping to inform and thus form public attitudes. He saw the pernicious effects unrestrained advertising and profit-seeking could have on media. He foresaw the growth of the public relations field and alienated journalists in observing that some paid writers follow, "…like all mercenaries, the flag whose bearer feeds him and promises booty."

He notes that the "offer and ‘sale’ of one’s own opinion," while a form of personal freedom for the seller, "converts the opinion directly into impersonal merchandise." He discusses some of the means by which inauthentic opinions may be elicited (e.g., persuasion, flattery, future rewards, threats, and orders).

He argues that the unreliability of the media of his day was not because of direct lies, but rather (in offering what could be a job description for a contemporary spin master) because of their tendency to, "inaccuracy, distortion, conjecture as reality or high probability, addition or exaggeration."

He also rallied against deception in communication in the form of hidden advertisements in which a brand name is unobtrusively slipped into an unrelated feature story. Here "shamelessness grows with the completeness of the disguise." With today’s visual media this has been taken to a new level with product placement (e.g., slipping brand name consumer items into film and television dramas) and there are continual efforts to improve various forms of subliminal communication.

His consideration of opinions as commodities and of deception leads to the observation that expressed opinions are not necessarily reflective of inner convictions. As with celebrities who endorse products, the publicly expressed attitude, "becomes marketable regardless of whether this or an opposite opinion is really harbored or adopted."

Implicit here, although not developed, is the idea that would gain important currency from later research regarding the importance of context and the degree of independence between attitudes and behavior. In noting that the person behaving in ways inconsistent with inner beliefs may come to adjust beliefs to behavior, he hints at the idea of cognitive dissonance and reverses the popularly assumed direction of the causal relationship (e.g., he suggests that behavior can "cause" attitudes rather than the reverse).

75 Years of Hindsight
Today of course with the specialization of knowledge, higher and usually quantitative standards for empirical claims, the professionally inculcated timidity of scholars and their unwillingness to find a unitary morality resident in the human soul/psyche, an undertaking of this scope and nature would be unlikely. Nor would our cynicism based on knowledge of recent history and empirical research on public opinion permit his Enlightenment and (later pragmatist) optimism about the power of knowledge to patch the world.

Aware of the ability to shape opinions and attuned as we are to recognizing and protecting an increasing array of life choices in contemporary society, most students today would reject his view of public opinion as a "unitary potential" or an "expression of a common will" which is, or potentially is, morally binding. It is not only that opinions can be shaped by demagogues and entrepreneurs drawing on the latest technologies, but that other than at the most abstract level, we are unlikely to find consensus in a world with so many choices and conflicting interests.

We may also question his unwavering confidence in elites, education and objectivity to reach the best answers through rational thought and discussion. On technical questions expertise is hardly debatable (assuming the experts can agree and their specialization does not cause them to miss bigger questions and the longer run). Yet that is not the case for resolving many of the most contentious public issues which at bottom involve value conflicts. These positions are based on notions of right and wrong, apart from assumptions which can be empirically and logically analyzed with the help of expert opinion leaders. While not irrelevant, better knowledge is hardly sufficient.

Certainly, educated elites, able to see the big picture and knowledgeable about the triumphs and disasters of the past may be less prone to simplistic propaganda and emotional appeals, yet elites also have their own interests (not to mention the fact that education may also serve to make the malevolent more clever and better able to disguise manipulative efforts). To a significant degree, where you stand depends on where you sit. Everyone sits somewhere and as Whitehead noted, every way of seeing is also a way of not seeing.

Tonnies’ strong belief in the possibility of objectivity (related to his faith in science and his belief in the unity of scientific and humanistic approaches), will not be shared to the same degree by those attuned to the ways in which our views of reality are socially constructed. Given the German origins of the field through Karl Mannheim and others, it is interesting that he did not deal more directly with such sociology of knowledge questions.

Still, the Enlightenment and scientific heritages on which Tonnies placed his bets, whatever their hubris and limitations, are way ahead of whatever is in second place. An informed public opinion able to draw on experts is likely to work best when there is awareness of the selective nature of all points of view, openness to a variety of perspectives, humility, and continual questioning and visibility in analysis and decision making.

Empirical research since his time has come far in describing mass attitudes and understanding much about their underlying processes. Tonnies would likely have been pleased to see the empirical explosion of research on public opinion, although not to see that this has rarely been on behalf of the public interest. Instead our powerful research tools are most often used for the pursuit of commercial and partisan political goals.

We know that in general media are likely to lead rather than to follow and to lead in a direction favored by their sponsors. Much media in offering escapism, whether into fantasy or consumption, is far from encouraging the link between public opinion and democracy, indeed it tends to be devoid of direct political content.

Underlying Tonnies thoughts are the arguments of classical liberal theorists who believed in the democratic potential of public opinion and its necessity for the freedom of the bourgeoisie. Public opinion could be a counter to tyrannical authority. When expressed in rules and expectations it transcended the will of those currently controlling the state and was a social force just like capital or direct coercion and even legitimate authority.

Tonnies believed that making the presumably objective facts of public life visible through independent and neutral means of communication would make elites more accountable and would permit the will of the people formed through reasoned discussion to be known. Well it hasn’t quite turned out that way.

Beyond a healthy skepticism about the words and deeds of the educated and powerful, we now also have less confidence in the superiority of public opinion based on the moral judgement of the average person. Apathy, intellectual and spiritual malnutrition or over-stimulation and powerful technologies for shaping opinion undercut its leadership role.

We have learned to be wary of the tyrannies and limitations of majorities as well as minorities. We need lots of eggs in multiple, transparent, public interest baskets.

Yet cynicism and misgivings apart, the power of a somewhat unified public opinion in a democracy can hardly be denied. Consider for example its role in the impeachment efforts involving Presidents Nixon and Clinton. There was considerable public support for removing Nixon and he left office. Many in Congress who personally felt that he should remain in office never the less signaled their readiness to vote for impeachment. However in Clinton’s case many legislators privately felt he should be removed from office but did not vote their belief because of a lack of public support for it. He stayed in office.

In spite of a very large body of empirical research on public opinion, the area is underdeveloped theoretically and philosophically. We lack adequate tools for understanding and evaluating the Nixon and Clinton cases. From one standpoint public opinion may suggest a victory for democracy. On the other hand consider the respect for the individual who has "the courage of his or her convictions" to stand against the crowd and to vote and act in ways that are consistent with their conscience, appealing to a higher or different law, than that supported by the public. Perhaps this blurring is functional and a reflection of life’s complexity. Blind adherence to any single principle apart from the context seems unwise.

Yet if wholesome ambiguities abound and neither theory nor the media have fulfilled their promise of contributing to a hallowed democratic political culture, the media has helped create a common culture of mass consumption and an American style that sequentially overflows its’ borders, first via the mass media in all their resplendent forms and second via merchandise and mimicry.

Tonnies hoped that the media, by effecting a genuine public opinion, might help restore valuable elements of the community type of society to modern society. He would have been disappointed to see that with the help of scientific and technological elites, the media had instead moved even further, if more subtly, in the dependent and manipulative directions of which he was critical.

The public created by the mass media is a relatively passive recipient of information and instructions rather than an active participant. This is far from the concept of an active public opinion envisioned by 18th century theorists and as implied by the interaction of well informed citizens in a New England Town Meeting.

Several decades ago with network television and a shrinking press, the trend of public passivity even accelerated. However with new interactive media, whether cable television and its variants, forms of remote communication or the internet (with its lesser cost, logistical advantages re time, place and accessibility and "many-to-many" communication) the issue is dynamic and offers rich possibilities for study and perhaps even reason for a little optimism.

Whatever the contemporary scoreboard, for democratic social change and a better understanding of public opinion and the media, it is vital to raise the kinds of broad normative and research questions Tonnies does. While there is unlikely to be a scholar capable of filling his shoes, we would do well to follow in his footsteps here.

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