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Paul Beaud

Common knowledge on historical vicissitudes of the notion of public opinion

In: Rseaux, 1993, volume 1 n1. pp. 119-137.

Abstract Summary: This article makes a detour through anthropology and history in an attempt to clarify some of the meanings covered by the notion of public opinion. Rather than assigning to it an a priori definition, the author attempts to reconstitute the strata of meaning which remain embedded as much in the representations which society associates with the term as in the conceptualization which sociology or political science have tried to make from it.

Citer ce document / Cite this document : Beaud Paul. Common knowledge on historical vicissitudes of the notion of public opinion. In: Rseaux, 1993, volume 1 n1. pp. 119-137. http://www.persee.fr/web/revues/home/prescript/article/reso_0969-9864_1993_num_1_1_3274

COMMON KNOWLEDGE On historical vicissitudes of the notion of public opinion


Summary: This article makes a detour through anthropology and history in an attempt to clarify some of the meanings covered by the notion of public opinion. Rather than assigning to it an a priori definition, the author attempts to reconstitute the strata of meaning which remain embedded as much in the representations which society associates with the term as in the conceptualization which sociology or political science have tried to make from it. I I



On notion the historical of public vicissitudes opinion of


substitute a precise definition of qffenttiche Meinung for the jargon of the bure aucracy and mass media, sociology had to accept '... the logical consequence which forced it to abandon this type of category' (Habermas, 1986). The highly respectable International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, published in 1968, affirmed: There is no generally accepted definition of 'public opinion' (quoted by Noelle-Neumann, 1977), which in fact meant that the definitions were so numerous (more than fifty, according to reputable authors) (Childs, 1965 is a lways quoted as the source) that one could not choose any single one. And to con clude these warnings, let us call to mind what Pierre Bourdieu clearly stated more than twenty years ago: 'Public opinion does not exist' (Bourdieu, 1972). After so many authoritative opinions (we could have added dozens of others), we could be tempted to stop there, to con clude with the establishment of this single paradox of an expression which, it seems, has passed from the vocabulary of politi cal philosophy to that of the social sciences, and then to that most com monly used and which the social sciences do not seem to want to recognize as being theirs - which does not however prevent them from referring to it at every available opportunity. Since its creation in 1937, the review The Public Opinion Quarterly consistently questioned the very basis of its own existence. Less than that could make one choose other subjects for reflec tion! But sociologists well know that they can notcapitulate just because the dimly per ceived truth by which, yesterday, they struggled to explain everyday life is today's common sense. This already pres ents a problem to sociology, and sociology all too often thinks it can resolve it by other 'common knowledge' of its own. Let us then start with the consideration that public opinion is an invention of 121

Opinion: from the Latin opinio: ; Opine: to hold or express an opinion The dictionary It is impossible to provide a stand ardized definition of public opinion, consequently, it is preferable, if possible, to avoid using the term ...'. This is not a recent recommendation, but a motion adopted by American political scientists during a congress in 1924 (quoted by Padioleau, 1981). George Ho race Gallup, who was twenty-three years old at the time, was perhaps present. If the latter had the descendants we know him to have had, those of the other par ticipants at the congress were just as rich. We shall thus limit ourselves to a few quotations. In 1953 Paul A. Palmer dared to affirm that the expression 'public opi nion' was tending to disappear from Ger man sociological and political science treatises (Palmer, 1953). About ten years later Jurgen Habermas returned to the attack, affirming that, not being able to


modem parliamentary democracies, irr espective of whether it is considered as fiction or reality. Agreement exists; the appearance of the notion public opinion is historically linked to the disappearance of absolute and hereditary power and every thing that justifies a given social order, whilst standing outside it. Opinion is by nature substitutive (Ozouf, 1987); it is the institution which replaces - in reality or ideologically - God and the king and which implies the existence of a certain number of conditions and means, such as publicity or the separation between the private and public spheres. In other terms - notably those of Lefort and Kantorowicz, which we shall paraphrase - in order for public opinion to emerge, an omni presence must be substituted by that which is symbolized by The Two Bodies of the King, (Kantorowicz, 1988), both mortal and immortal, which 'give sub stance to society' (Lefort, 1966) and en sure its transcendental permanence; over-fullness must be replaced by a va cuum, that is, indtermination, history (Lefort, 1986). Thus, the conceptual device is set up and one can easily recognize in it other periodization, other divisions, the 'befores' and 'afters', the 'withs' and 'withouts', without which the social sciences seem unable to think or evaluate. For example, one can identify, without and with his tory, that typical differentiation which so easily permits one to classify societies, the ones holistic and extrodetermined, where tradition and the gods have an answer to everything, the others individualistic and introdetermined, or even better, undeter mined, where inter-subjectivity and a rgumentation become a primary necessity,

since no unshakeable rule any longer automatically regularizes interactions. And so we return to the point of depart ure, that which creates the departure, defines the object public opinion and generates the categories which will permit us to analyse it, legitimizing both the empirical practices of those counting who is for and who is against, and the most ambitious of theories. As far as the latter are concerned we shall not contest here the heuristic virtues of the models built on such differentiation. We shall simply, at first, try to add a supplementary phase to the methodological process to which the elaboration of this ideal-type leads. That is, that of the testing of categories created by a return to what, by compari son, Implicitly or explicitly defines them, the counter-model of societies from 'be fore*. Any reflection, any classification, based on a 'before' and an 'after' contains the risk of trading the 'always thus' ill usion for the 'never before' illusion, in this case of a society whose aim is self-dete rmination and which has given itself the means to achieve it*. Before attaining this, it is appropriate at least to look elsewhere to see if, in particular, it really is necess ary and sufficient that someone (Rous seau, the philosophers of the Lumires or the 1789 revolutionaries) name this specificicity in order for public opinion to become at least the object of sociological attention. We shall attempt to do so by getting rid of a priori definitions, with the exception of that implied by a 'yes' or 'no' and we shall need to consider how other societies asked themselves and still ask themselves the question of the determinat ion of collective action by negotiated con frontation of points of view, and that,

* I have borrowed this epistemological warning - the 'never before' and 'always thus' - from Bourdieu, Chamboredon and Passeron (1968), as a reminder that the comparative approach is the only one which can allow one to highlight breaks and continuity. It is in order to do so that we shall first deal with public opinion here as a historic category, as Habermas advised (1968, p. 10), (contd) but we shall also cross the barrier which he established when he wrote that one can only talk of public opinion 'in a specific sense in England at the end of the 17th centry and in France in the 18th century ..." (ibid).


broader still, of the concerted elaboration of representations. Polling in Papua Amongst the many empirical questions to which this notion of public opinion has given rise, there is one which has moti vated many American researchers, all convinced that it could not be asked els ewhere than in a society corresponding to the model described above and which, incidentally, also disposes of modem means of communication and institutions allowing well-informed opi nion to control the decisions of govern ments, and even to dictate policy. This question, chosen because it is as old as the world, it that of war and peace. There is no treatise on public opinion, particu larly North American, which does not make use of the examples of the United States' entry into the first World War or its withdrawal from Vietnam. Formerly, it is well known, wars were due to the moods of tyrants only. The problem is that nothing is less sure. One does not have to be an anthropologist - being a cinema-lover is enough - to know that the Iroquois did not dig up the hatchet because the chief told them to. Barrington Moore, who is not used to using concepts rashly, frequently speaks of public opinion concerning the Jivaro or Mbuti Pygmies*. An anachronism of a sociologist venturing into fields which are not his, many may think. Not necessarily. There is no use, or almost none, in turn ing to anthropology for references to publ ic opinion, and anyone who took the risk of thus rebaptizing interminable di scussions would no doubt be suspected of a major sin, ethnocentrism. Toour knowl edge, hardly anyone other than Margaret

Mead risked explicitly using the term which so many others in the same disci pline systematically excluded from their vocabulary only to, we shall see, take a continual interest in the same thing eventually. Let us then briefly discuss some of the latter - and return to Mead shortly - but specify that we are doing nothing other than questioning indirectly, by a few incursions into the field of an thropology, the historicist preconception just mentioned. In fact it is not appropri ate for sociologists to contribute to this unformulated discussion of the existence of public opinion in primitive societies although it is one of the main questions of anthropology today, since it contains the further questions of power and politics. For public opinion to exist, mediation, as sociologists say, there must be an end to the immediate social control (from Clastres, 1974, p. 19) which characterizes all so-called traditional or primitive so cieties. There is no place either for open controversy, when everyone is perman ently being watched by everyone else in a way which ensures adherence to the norms, or even for the 'as-for-me', when each person has interiorized the norms so well that surveillance of the community becomes almost superfluous; authority or rules are not questioned. Such is the anthropology of many sociologists or pol itical scientists - of some anthropologists too -which allows them to build the model we have just discussed. But field anthro pology is a perpetual refutation of this fable. One need only refer here to the famous example of the 'writing lesson' which Lvi-Strauss talks of in Tristes Tropiques. In it he tells of the exclusion of a chief of the Nambikwara tribe, a subject of contestation because he had wanted to increase his power and prestige by pre-

* An important comparatlvist because he practises the look back backwards, Moore re-exports to other societies other concepts which were forged on the supposition that, applied here, they could by definition not be applied there. He thus evokes the alternance of periods of intense social life and those of withdrawal into private life in certain tribal societies, or the individualism of the Greeks as a factor favouring the development of democracy (Moore, 1984 and 1985).



tending to know how to write and thus to penetrate the secrets of the foreign visitor (Lvi-Strauss, 1955). This is also a theme which runs through all Pierre Clastres's oeuvre, that of 'society versus the State' (Clastres, 1974), of the primitive refusal of One, of the chief who wants to be chief, against the opinion of all. Society versus the State; is this not the metaphorical expression of public opinion as defined by the Revolution?

The proof is thus there, permanently. Public opinion is in no way a specificity of modern democratic societies if we define it in the terms which we have just referred to, on the basis of this periodization which so many anthropological and historical publications invite us to criticize - even for example, amongst the latest, Jean Baechler's Dmocraties, which was re cently the subject of an interesting debate in La revue du MAUSS (notably Caill, 1990; Godbout, 1990). In the same way that Sahlins inverted the common sense of traditional anthropology to make primit ive societies those of abundance and our societies those of want, Baechler con We shall not go further in this brief sum trasts the common affirmation that mary of Baechler's thesis, nor in the democracy is incompatible with the ab critique for which it calls. What criteria sence of intrasocial antagonism, with the allow one, for example, to say that direct consensus, considered as tyrannical, and unanimist democracy is more democ which are normally associated with tradi ratic than representative democracy, tionand metasocial elements of the social based on delegation and majority rule, order and give the holistic and transcend which he says was imposed on us because ental aspect to primitive social cohesion of large numbers which materially pre (Baechler, 1985). What we are invited to clude the functioning of the other model? question here is another aspect of the Or what can be said of Baechler's first 'great divide' between primitive and mode assumption that democracy exists, so to rn, the contrast between myth and rea speak, in a natural state because man, son, pre-scientific thinking and scientific being naturally calculating and selfish, finds it in his interests to have a system minds, overlapping that which justifies the boast of modem parliamentary demo which is best suited to ensure the inde cracies that they are founded on the pendence of everyone? For the moment the answers to these questions are not right of the individual to publicly argue about his manner of belonging to a com relevant. munity, and almost always descibe other societies as being based on either the We must at this stage return to the poss violence of a despot, or the obligation of ibly unique anthropological writing in which the notion of public opinion is exall to adhere to the community 'without 124

question', one could say, since what gov erns this adherence is by definition estab lished once and for all, tradition having foreseen everything. To this vision of things, anthropology has, we repeat, con tributed so many empirical contradictions that it is surprising that all the theoretical conclusions were not drawn before Baechler. As Godbout wrote, 'para doxically, primitive societies, who ... "waste" their time in interminable di scussions, are informational societies which thus perhaps resemble, in certain ways, the predicted post-modern society based on communication' (Baechler, 1985). If there is a distinction between primitive democratic societies and mod erndemocratic societies (for Baechler, the demand for democracy is universal and was only contradicted in the long history of humanity by those exceptions repre sented by empires and kingdoms), it lies in the fact that in the one participation and freedom of expression have the same goal, unanimity, whilst in the other 'dissensus' has been institutionalized.


Another New Guinea tribe, the Iatmul, are those head-hunters to whom Bateson dedicated the anthropological classic La crmonie du Naven, a work containing a general theoretical proposition for under standing the mechanisms of collective i nteraction and which, without acknowledgement, was to be applied by Written during one of her stays in Bali, public opinion theoreticians to crowd be Margaret Mead's article describes the haviour in particular. According to Bate mechanisms of collective decision-maki son, the Iatmul's social life is organized ng, both large and small, in three types on a communication system, schismoof Oceanic societies. The first case studied genesis - 'a differentiation process in the was that of the Arapesh in New Guinea, rules of individual behaviour, the result an ethnic group made up of small mount a set of cumulative interactions be aincommunities without political in of tween individuals' (Bateson, 1971). Thus, stitutions, chiefs, priests, or hereditary for example, authoritarianism in an indi leaders, where each event concerning the vidual or group may generate subjection group was subject to the play of epheme in another, or boastfulness might provoke ral alliances. Mead took as an example even greater boastfulness in the other. the following incident. The owner of a What is important in both cases is the garden found it wrecked by a pig from a relationship producing progressive social neighbouring village. The custom in such differentiation. a case would be for him to kill the pig and give the body to its owner, either because There may be food for easy but contesthe was on good terms with him, or to avoid able transpositions of these propositions a quarrel. But it could happen that the onto the modes of opinion-forming in con person whose crop had been damaged felt temporary societies. Our interest will that he deserved compensation and thus thus, with Margaret Mead, be in the most thought of eating the pig. Because of a formal aspects of the Iatmul's social inter risk of conflict between the two villages, actions. They in fact have recourse to an he would not however take such a deci original device for avoiding the conflict sion alone. He would consult those closest which this one-upmanship would cer tainly provoke if it contributed, within a to him and, subject to their encourage ment, he would count those for and those given ethnic group, to the constitution of against, for an Arapesh always has an increasingly opposed groups, whether by opinion on everything which should and their similitude or the growing differences should not be done in every circum in their attitudes. Iatmul society adopted stance. The notion of public opinion is a dual structural principle of action which here taken politically in its most demandi formalizes the expression of antagonism ng sense. This society founded its collec to prevent its crystallization, without hav tiveaction on the aggregation of its ing to rely on a centralized authority. In members' opinions, noted Margaret the event of dispute, individuals are called To our knowledge, only Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann (1980, 1984) refers to it. 125

plicitly explored. Mead's short text (Mead, 1937) of more than fifty years ago is doubly surprising, first because of the questions it raises, and secondly because of the fact that it is hardly ever quoted by specialists in public opinion, sociologists, political scientists or others. It is as if its contents challenged an entire conceptual system based on the contrasts which we have just discussed, and menaced the consensus on which, as we have seen, shared certitude rests, certitude which serves as a definition of the term*.

Mead, who thus applied to a primitive society the individualistic definition of public opinion in which liberalism would like to see the foundations of modern democratic societies alone.


organization of which precludes individ uals from being personally and emotiona lly involved in collective decisions, or bound to multiple loyalties. All able-bo died men are members of the village counc il and in it occupy, each in turn, a more and more elevated position, until they are retired and replaced. The individual is but a number within a rigid system whose essential function is to ensure the perpe tuity of established social norms. Faced with any event having public reper cussions, an Arapesh asks himself: "What is my feeling in this respect?', an Iatmul: "What is my group's position, and what is that of the opposing group?', a Balinese: 'How can this be resolved in accordance with tradition?'. When it is a matter of, for example, deciding if a man who has marr ied a second-cousin is guilty of incest, the council goes by a single criterion, i.e. close or distant, a cousin is a cousin and the guilty must be banished. Nobody pleads for or against, nobody takes sides - the law is the law. 126 To these three types of social

upon to express themselves, not accordtion, of collective social problem-solving, Ing to their own opinions, but according Margaret Mead attempted to find modern to their belonging to a group, a belonging equivalents, considering that in complex which is assigned to them on purely arbi societies like ours, people cohabit. We trary dichotomous criterion: those born in must admit, the examples chosen often winter as opposed to those bom in sum seem contestable (the comparative socio mer, those who live south of the cemetery logy of anthropologists, however illus and those who live north of it, those not trious, is often worth no more than sociologists' anthropology). In reacting on allowed to eat falcon meat and those who must not eat parrots, etc. Since each impulse, an Arapesh behaves, she wrote, individual inevitably belongs to several like someone participating in lynching or groups formed in this way, he is contin a spontaneous uprising for improved ually led to cooperate, on such occasions, working conditions(f). As for an Iatmul, he with part of those who will be or were his barely differs from the political party mili tant of today who has to adhere to the opponents regarding something else, and vice versa. Yesterday's formal enemy is party because his father before him did tomorrow's ally. Individual opinion disap and who approves any position taken by pears behind collective opinion, but in it and loathes anything from outside of it. such a way that the overlapping of loyalty Finally, the Balinese does what we all do to different groups preculudes the format when conforming to collective rules never ion of permanent antagonism. questioned by public discussion, like the obligation not to work on Easter Day, that The last case studied by Margaret Mead is, on a date set arbitrarily. was that of Balinese rural civilization, the We shall not try here to find more convinc ing contemporary parallels to the situ ations described by Margaret Mead. What counts is less the answer than the ques tion which she refers to sociology and political science, too often doubly guilty not only of ethnocentrism, but also and particularly of inattention to that super position of levels of reality to which r esearch on public opinion should be attentive, instead of proceeding by dog matic exclusion, according to antagonist ic methodological options. In fact the typology established by Mead stretches the notion of opinion from the concrete, immediate situation to the impersonal and legalist framework of institutions, particularly political and judicial, which lay claim to a function of representing this opinion. Without taking the point further here, in what claims to be a mere critical historical reconstitution of the social and sociological construction of such a notion in its normative and analytical aspects, we shall suggest that, provided that its terms are questioned again, this proposi-


One could of course say that we are mix ingtwo domains here: that of public opi nion on the one hand, that of the long history of social devices for collective de cision-making on the other. But for the historian, rightly or wrongly (this is not the moment for deciding), one seldom goes without the other. We shall come back to the definitions given by historians of public opinion. Let us simply recall that of Joseph Strayer: the historian 'thinks ... that it is action, and not verbal ex pression, which is the real indicator of opinion, or, to be more precise, that an opinion which is not represented by an act, or which does not transform an ac In Plato's cave tion, is of little importance' (Strayer, 1968). And in the present case, we must War or peace? That, as we have said, is define what action means. A historian of the question which historians, sociolog slavery, and thus hardly inclined towards ists and political scientists often ask the indulgence with which the gap be themselves to provide the answer which tween Greek political philosophy, ever so we know; public opinion only makes humanistic, and the barbarity of this ab sense where a dilemma cannot be settled solute exploitation, is still often con without the confrontation of everyone's sidered, Finley nevertheless considers arguments. Let us then follow our experts that in the ancient world a citizen's par in the study of war. All good manuals tell ticipation in politics was no doubt more us, thus again challenging an already real than it is today where, according to disputed periodization, that the first him, it is restricted to an impersonal act known description of an 'opinion poll' choosing a ballot paper. Commenting on comes from Thucydides' History of the Thucydides, Finley remarked that giving war between the Pelopennesians and the an opinion in such circumstances Athenians. The Lacedaemonians, he re amounted for many to voting at the same ports, had the habit of expressing them time for their own enrolment in the army selves on public matters by acclamation. (Finley, 1976). When saying was really But when it was a question of declaring doing, one could write, in Austin's mann war or not on the Athenians, Stheneer. Since then, as Lefort wrote, the lades, the elected magistrate, was inca citizen has been excluded from the net pable after long debate of discerning who, works of social life 'to be converted into a of those for and against, were in the maj counting unit. Numbers have been sub ority. He then decided to count the opi stituted for substance' (Lefort, 1986). nions: '"Those Lacedemonians amongst you who consider that the treaty is broken Substance: that is what Montesquieu was and that the Athenians are guilty, stand concerned with, long before Finley, when up and come over to this side - and he he wrote that 'philosophical freedom cons gestured to them - and those who are of ists in the exercise of one's will, or at least ... in the opinion one has of exercisthe opposite opinion, to the other side".

tion is of essential theoretical and meth odological interest. This is because it in cites one to re-think public opinion, even on the level of daily intersubjective ex change, according to the co-presence of these various levels of reality and of the referents which are constituted by his toric accumulation of the diverse meanings which the expression has taken on, and by all the institutions which the latter have generated. What remains now is for us to pursue the inventory of these meanings and institutions, beyond that established by Mead, on the basis of examples which of necessity short-circuit the entire political history of Western civ ilization.

The citizens stood up and split into two groups. The treaty was thus broken by a large majority' (Thucydides, 1964).



ing your will. ... in a State which might moreover have the best possible laws, a man being tried, and to be hanged the next day, would be no freer than a pacha in Turkey' (Montesquieu, 1951). Without the right to give one's opinion publicly, there is no free man. Such proclamations have been plentiful, from the Greek phi losophers to the century of the Lumires. But to understand how we could have gone from substance and the individual to numbers, to understand what hap pened so quickly to the publicity Habermas talks of, we must scratch the varnish off great principles and look for other invariables challenging them. We must make a detour through the shadows of Plato's famous cave, where chained men think their own shadows on the wall, or puppets moving past in front of them, are reality (Plato). The doxa finds its first definition in myth; it is opinion returned to the it stands to reason, to the pre-reflexive, to infantile ignorance of those for whom the real is nothing other than the tangible, the opposite of reason, of objec tive representation, the products of edu cation, of long experience. Recent history will bring us back to this debate. Let us remain at the origins.

Amongst those words on which concep tual construction is inclined to play, there

After all, the debt is obvious; the Greeks and Romans had already thought these categories. The legacy is in words, even if they have sometimes changed meaning. Very few terms to which the entire modem debate on public opinion refer do not have their source in the political philosophy of classical antiquity, and have not also in Greeks and Romans thus had the merit of talking directly. Priuatus did have that herited a part of its normative value. Fol meaning of privacy on which Hannah Arlowing the progression of words is also endt gave a lengthy commentary (Arendt, often forcing oneself to give up the facility 1961). A strange destiny, that of this of certitudes. word, which reveals the hesitations of history, there where things were thought to be clear. Having at times been dispara-

is of course firstly that public/private dis tinction outside of which, it seems and not without some apparent paradox, we can not today think of the history of public opinion. As Lucien Jaume wrote, 'it is commonly admitted that the Revolution inaugurated in France the institutional distinction between public and private' (Jaume, 1987). It is also recognized that that was but the concretization of ideas propagated earlier by Adam Smith for whom the distinction was at the very base of liberalism, without which, of course, there could be no question of public opi nion*. Yet the revolution is the very example of what should impel caution in dating. By excluding women from political life for over a century and a half more by sending them back to their private Vocat ion'*, the revolutionaries found, no doubt without knowing it, the etymology of all the derivatives of the Latin publiais (of the people) on which Habermas also played to construct his model of the modern public sphere (public, publicity, publish), forget ting however to go further back to the root which precisely returns women to that infantile status in which Roman aristo crats or nineteenth century bourgeois agreed to keep them. The etymon [etumologia, the true meaning) of all these terms is pubes, which gives us pubre, but which originally referred to only the male population at an age to carry arms and deliberate, and which, crossed with poplicus gave publicus.

between On tills market of economic opinions subject liberalism see between Malret, private and 1978. the persons. We modem shall of conception course come of public back toopinion, the filiation envisaged often established as the free t Cf. on this subject Fralsse (1989) who deals with the masculine use of reason - that other correlative of opinion - with the aim of 'genderizing women's reason' during the Revolution.



ging, and at times meliorative, the epithet they were thus excluded from society has retained a strange ambiguity, both in where broader interests were discussed French and English. It would perhaps be .... Caring for the family seemed oldfashioned, even in bad taste' (Castan, going too far to put into the mind of a 1986). Thus, after centuries of confine nineteenth century man that meaning ment, the old Greco-Roman contempt for which, by opposition, contributes to structuring the constellation of meanings the privatus, the idion, that which one which we place behind public opinion and possesses, which leads, says Arendt public sphere on the one hand, and pri (1961, p. 48), to an 'idiotic' life, re-ap vate sphere on the other. The 1863 edition peared. Classical antiquity celebrated of Lttr still gave as the main definition of public activity to the point of not conside 'private': "Who lives without rank or em ring as entirely human someone who had ployment involving him in public affairs'. no right to the public domain, 'the only one which allowed man to show what he Words passively resisted the Lumires, the Revolution, the separation of peoples' really was, what he had which was irre placeable' (Arendt, 1961, p. 51). The rev abode from that of economic activity which Max Weber said was one of the olutionaries of 1789 did not think any essential conditions of modem industrial differently, when it turned the res publica development. Two centuries earlier Riinto a cult, a metaphysical of the supreme Being. Robespierre even went as far as chelet's dictionary stated: 'Private: own, personal, who has no rank' (quoted by suspecting the existence of God behind all Chartier, 1986). The Oxford English Dic that (see Jaume, 1987). tionary similarly records expressions still Continuity, then, but not only that. The in use such as private soldier referring to ancient distinction between public and the former meaning of the term private, private covers a social distinction: citizens 'having no public office nor official posi on the one hand, non-citizens on the tion' (quoted by Hirschman, 1983). It was other, reduced to what Habermas called only in the nineteenth century that the a negative definition of themselves. But word partly lost its original meaning to be eighteenth century man was both pubassociated more positively with the notion licus and privatus. Rousseau illustrated of privilege, as in private house, private * this well, he who, Arendt wrote, symb education, private view, private property olized modern man, in 'his incapacity to etc. live both in society and outside of if (Ar If it is a tributary of a new definition of the endt, 1961, p. 49) - the intimate opposes contrast and complementarity of private the social. We are far from having, histori and public, the birth of the modern public cally and sociologically, covered all the sphere nevertheless brought to light again results of this observation. those same categories on which the public sphere of classical antiquity was founded. Castan discussed this. When at the end Rumours of the Ancien Rgime interest in a 'general society' grew, there was a simultaneous Rousseau has often been credited with the authorship of the expression public waning of 'family feeling. There was no more pity nor indulgence towards child opinion. He even wrote a thesis about this renor women who were not on the level of more than 700 pages (Ganochaud, 1980). But other appellations considered of enlightened or worldly conversation; Cf. Williams (1976, pp. 203-204). 'Priv' and 'private' nevertheless retain such derogatory connotations that Littr gives as a second sense 'lavatories and the English still call 'private parts' that which the sixteenthth century French referred to as ' shameful parts'. 129


priate to recall, because it has lasted, is But after all, these definitions, necessarily normative, are of little importance. The the early ambiguity of this reawakening of essential is rather to know when, why and public opinion, a metaphysic entity as how we started wanting to redefine this much as a political category, and an ob undefinable something. One may without ject both of social mistrust and of scient difficulty agree to say that it could not be ific faith. done in a world dominated by primitive The expression was not yet listed in dic Christian philosophy whose rhetoric was tionaries when there were already at entirely for resolving this paradox - main tempts to measure the state of public taining the social link, the ideal of a com opinion. In 1745 the general comptroller mon world, whilst preaching the refusal Orry addressed to the administrators of of the world and ordering everybody to the provinces a questionnaire chiefly de 'take care of their own affairs'*. signed to record individuals and goods. It is nevertheless is so doing that nascent Nothing particularly new; the practice commercial and financial capitalism was had been known for over a century. What to restore that on which the bourgeois was however new was the final instruc public sphere was later founded. tion given to the 'surveyors': "You must Habermas well described this process start a rumour in the free towns of your which, from the thirteenth century, cre department that entrance rights are to be ated a new complex of social exchange; increased by a third. You must also start exchange of goods and exchange of info a rumour, in the towns and in the rmation (Habermas, 1986). It was a slow countryside, on the introduction of a fu underground movement often discovered ture militia of two men in each parish .... According to Mona Ozouf, public opinion only found its definition in French In the 1 798 edition of the Dictionnaire de l'Acadmie. As for the public/private distinction, It appeared only in that of 1835. The notion of opinion, she wrote, remains linked to that of personal feelings: 'that is why public, which can qualify a place, a depot, a path, a woman, cannot qualify opinions' (Ozouf, 1987). t On this subject Hannah Arendt developed that apparent paradox already mentioned by which, for a public domain to be restored, politics have to take on a transcendental dimension which religion denies to life on earth, since salvation of the spirit Is the only common preoccupation (Arendt, 1961, p. 42 et seq).

synonymous and other inventors' names inscribed in royal censure or in the con have also been put forward; that of Wil cessions made to powerful corporations, liam Temple, for example, the first mod between two repressive measures to con emtheoretician of opinion as a source of fine the individual in his role of family political authority. A century apart, Pas producer when the economy had already cal and Voltaire asked themselves overtaken the urban scale and extended whether it was or was not the queen of the to national limits. world. In L'esprit des lois, Montesquieu We need not paraphrase Habermas to called it l'esprit gnral and listed its com resume in a few lines a historical itinerary ponents: customs, manners and cliwhich is today, if not entirely known, then mate(l), religion, laws, things of the past, at least well marked out; that of the recgovernment maxims. States of mind, onquest of the right to trade, constituent general will, generalopinion, ; as of the bourgeois society, of a political econ many terms and definitions as there are omy which frees social activity from the authors*. It is not surprising that socio restricted framework of oikos. Nor need logists and historians themselves hesi we talk again here of literary circles, tate; attitudes, beliefs, mentalities or erudite societies, the development of pri collective conscience, as with Durkheim vate correspondence and then of the everything is included. press. What it would however be appro



know what it wants' (quoted by Stourdze, 1972). The list of sceptical defenders of great principles would be never-ending; we shall settle for quoting Talne, who reused Plato's words without the mythol ogy, to talk of the state of the masses' minds on the eve of the Revolution, and quietly agreed with him to say that with outeducation ... (and God knows how much time that takes!). The list of para graph headings of chapter III, volume five of Origines de la France contemporaine, speaks for itself: 'Mental incapacity - How Ideas become legends - Political incapaci ty - How new government policies and It is in fact one of the paths which was to acts are interpreted - Destructive im be followed, theoretically and empirically, by thought on the notion of public opinion pulses - At what is blind anger aimed Mistrust of natural leaders' etc. fTalne, until the famous American psychosociological works devoted to propaganda. The 1877, p. 489). By justifying a posteriori two terms were often linked in publica the end of the revolutionary Intermission, Taine in fact stated clearly what had been tions until recently, as they were in the sense in which nineteenth century phi hidden by the principles professed for a century: the dmokratia is a question of losophy and twentieth century sociology understood terms such as 'crowd' or time. Take the mind, still so unrefined, of one of our contemporary peasants, and 'mass'. Revolutionary enthusiasm for what Tocqueville, in De la dmocratie en cut out all the ideas which for the past Amrique, called people's spontaneous eighty years have entered it in so many Cartesian rationalism, died down very ways - by primary schooling instituted in each village, by the return of conscripts fast. The people were rational by instinct, an infallible judiciary, for but a brief in after seven years of service, by the prodi stant, the moment of a celebration one gious multiplication of books, journals, could say, to paraphrase Ozouf*. Opinion roads, railways, journeys and communic returned to that by which Rousseau ations of all kinds. Try to imagine the sometimes defined it - prejudice. Even peasant of those times, confined from renowned sociologists joined in. Tnnies, father to son to his hamlet, without local in his Kritik der ffentliche Metnung, saw roads, without news, without information in opinion but irrationality and pure emoother than the Sunday sermon, entirely tiveness, thus following in the footsteps of preoccupied with earning his dally bread generations of philosophers, historians and taxes, 'with his miserable and with and political thinkers of the nineteenth ered look', not daring to repair his house, century who thought, like Hegel in his forever tormented, defiant, narrowPrinciples of the philosophy oflaw, that the minded, and, so to speak, hardened by people 'In so far as this word refers to a poverty. His condition was almost that of particular fraction of the members of a his ox or his donkey, and his ideas inkeeping with his condition. He had reState, represents the part which does not You are to carefully note whatever the people say about this and mention it in your account to the King* (quoted by Lecuyer, 1981). Orry opened a way to the study of opinion which proved to be fertile for an ever-present questioning, to which Rousseau was already providing an answer (opinion ferments), and which Le Bon was to resolve in talking of contagion and Tarde of imitation (de Tarde, 1911, 1922; Le Bon, 1906; Lecuyer, 1981, p. 187). * Of all the metaphors used to talk of public opinion, that of the judiciary ('an unpaid and incorruptible judicatory' said Bentham) is certainy one of the most common. It also refers to a reality. As Moore wrote (1984, p. 1 12), punishment of the guilty was, in the Athenianpublic sphere, the unifying act par excellence of opinion. The modern era has also understood this, since it has made the jury one of the institutions for representing the voxpopulL



struggle of a descendant of wine and dye merchants for the right to those signs of social distinction which the king still Like the dictionaries of the former cen reserved for the nobility through petty tury, scholarly or romanesque literature sumptuary laws. We should not however was thus an inevitable phase to guard reduce Montaigne's contribution in the against a vision of the modern renaiss knowledge of opinion mechanisms to ance of public opinion which was too those mere vestimentary preoccupations. idealized. Old ambiguities remained. Do we not owe him the famous aphorism There was the doxoc, there was also the on the relativity of all truth which an opinion of poets called upon by Plato so accident can convert into an error; and that they may publicly condemn that vice also the idea that although a man can pederasty. Those who are accused too think what he likes deep down, his public easily of thinking only of politics, reason, life compels him to conform to customs universality, often have their minds els and fashions, to the opinion of others? ewhere. Opinion is less often that civil religion of which Rousseau spoke in Du Opinion was still understood primarily in contrat social than plain reputation, the sense of reputation by seventeenth others' judgement, even when envisaged century political philosophers like Locke, in its social or political implications. It is as by those of the following century like hardly surprising to find in Choderlos de Rousseau, who is credited with a different Laclos' Les Liaisons Dangereuses a simi conception of the term. It would hardly be laracceptance of the expression public worth insisting further on this point, if opinion. It is more so to note its continual this assimilation of public opinion to a presence in 'political' thinkers during the form of social control did not conceal preceding few centuries and for a long other ambiguities which explain the long time afterwards. What was Shakespeare delay in turning principles into facts, and thinking when he imagined Henry IV r in relying on opinion to rule the world. eprimanding his son, the future Henry V, John Locke was the first to clearly state because he was seen too often in bad the question. Man in society cannot live company, reminding him that it was to by continually confronting others' disap opinion that he owed his crown?*. Maproval; the opinion of others forces him to chiavelli similarly recommended that the conform. But since it is also volatile, there Prince should not neglect what he called is no point expecting from it any political commune optnione or pubblica voce, in wisdom. short that he 'take care of appearances', since that was the only thing which im David Hume was the only one to judge pressed the common people (which with undivided optimism this capacity of means, incidentally, that the question of individuals belonging to the same nation to reconcile their 'moods' and ways of a link between opinion and legitimacy did not emerge with the disappearance of the thinking, and it was in this capacity that power of kinship). In that same sixteenth he situated the legitimacy of power. A century, in his Essais Montaigne, who government is based on opinion; a sen was to be the first (rather than Rousseau, tence which fathers' of the was American to inspire the Constitution 'founding who is always quoted) to have spoken of public opinion, referred to it in particular (Noelle-Neumann, 1984, p. 74 et seq.). to justify the care he took in dressing. Many others were less affirmative. Rous Politics were first and foremost the seau, as we saw with Arendt, saw in the * I have borrowed this example, as well as most of those which follow, from Noelle-Neumann, 1984, p. 64 et seq.

mained torpid for so long "he even lacked Instinct".' (Taine, 1877, pp. 489-^490).



pressure of opinion a major dilemma, the cause of conflict between private and publ ic. If he saw in the general will the foun dations of society, in both the political and moral sense (law, he said in Du contrat social, is the authentic expression of this), he nevertheless deplored the fact that what was good for all was not good for the individual as soon as opinion became reputation. When, in an often-quoted phrase, he made opinion 'the queen of the world', was he not going so far as to affirm that even kings were its slaves? Rousseau sometimes has an accent of Sahlins - to return to anthropology - when comparing the freedom of primitive peoples with the tyranny of life in civilized societies. The stoic's ataraxy, he wrote, is nowhere near the profound indifference of the primitive person to all which surrounds him, for that would require 'that these words, strength and reputation, 'have meaning in his mind, that he leam that there is one type of man for whom the regard of all the universe counts, who knows how to be happy and pleased with himself on the testimony of others rather than on his own ...; the Savage lives within himself; sociable man, always outside of himself, does not know how to live but on the opinion of others, and it is, so to speak, from their judgement that he draws the sense of his own existence' (Rousseau, 1964). Tocqueville made an even clearer distinc tion between the laws of the conscience and those of opinion of which Rousseau wrote in Emile. This time, it was what Norbert Elias was to call self-constraint and Richard Sennet self-repression, which were anticipated. Domination by the what-will-they-say of the as-for-me left ambiguous ground, that of morality, to concern cultural structures (those of the personality in public), and political structures, the very functioning of democ racy . The immediate opposite of that mod ern individualism in which it was hoped would lie the generating principle of a new

necessity, argumentation, was that des potic conformism to which the power of majority opinion leads, and which Toc queville noted in the United States. Be cause 'the majority (lives there) in perpetual adoration of itself (Tocqueville, 1951, vol. I, p. 267), he wrote, T know of no country where there reigns, in general, less independence of minds and genuine freedom of discussion than in America ... The inquisition never managed to prevent the circulation in Spain of books opposed to the religion of the majority. The empire of the majority does better in the United States - it has removed even the thought of publishing them' (Tocqueville, 1951, vol. I, pp. 266-267). With Tocqueville were thus established the elements of an examination and de finition of public opinion which were nor mative, descriptive and ideological; normative because still linked to a narrow conception of social control, descriptive because linked to relational structures and political organization in democracies, and ideologically linked to questions which these had on themselves. It was a surprising blend of old questioning, taken from Plato, of empirical observations and theoretical intuition which sociology has only recently discovered. We understand his difficulty - and ours, when trying to sort out all that! 'I clearly see two tendenc ies in equality' he wrote, 'one which car ries every man's mind towards new thoughts, and the other which would will ingly reduce it to no longer thinking' (Toc queville, 1951, vol. II, p. 19). This opinion "which leads the world' (Toc queville, 1951, vol. II, p. 18), was it rea son, knowledge, or belief? The question, Platonian in its form, expressed the entire dilemma of an era, because 'common opi nion is the only guide which individual reason retains in democratic peoples', but also because this common opinion was made of beliefs which the public imposes and 'impresses into souls by a sort of immense pressure of the minds of all on



the intelligence of everyone' (Tocqueville, 1951 , vol. II, p. 18). The answer was partly borrowed from Plato, but in a vocabulary which sometimes calls to mind contem porary sociology: 'Experience, customs and education almost always end up cre ating this sort of practical everyday wis dom and science oj'everyday events called common sense. Common sense is enough for the ordinary pace of society ..." (Toc queville, 1951, vol. I, p. 238, author's italics).

The ideas market We shall leave Tocqueville here, not with out specifying that this latter debate is far from being closed. Habermas reminds us of it: for today's thinkers, communication ofall kinds, in which Taine seemed to have placed all his hopes, has failed in their tasks. How can public opinion be formed 'from the mass of leanings, of confused ideas, of popularized points of view, such as those spread by the media' (Hennis, quoted by Habermas, 1986, p. 248)? There are henceforth but two solutions: renouncing the principle of universality and relying on the open institutions of an informed elite of citizens (genuine public opinion, endowed with reason), or, even simpler, considering elected repre sentatives as the incarnation of the general will (Habermas, 1986, pp. 248249). In short, talking of public opinion is also retracing the history of liberalism's con tradictions, of that which separates the representations which it has of the prin ciples on which it is founded and the representations it makes of social reality. Democratic theory invented the citizen, as Offerte wrote (cf. Offerte, 1985), but con tinually questions itself on his existence. And this absolute dead-end led it to a

fragmentation which forced it to put together a solution for replacing its universal and rational model of opinion, based on the public confrontation of ar guments, thanks notably to that other invention peculiar to the twentieth cen tury, of two symbolically semi-equivalent institutions: the polling booth which refers opinion to the private sphere and against which an extreme left which still believed in principles fought, and more recently of course opinion polls, which also individualize opinion and serialize individuals by stating that public opinion is but the sum of private opinions. We shall do no more here than mention opi nion polls, a compulsory task in any anal ysis on the subject. We merely wish to specify that in relating the polling booth, introduced in France on the eve of the First World War, and opinion polls, off icialized by the creation in 1938 of the IFOP (French institute of public opinion), we approach, in a certain way, Slvko Splichal's critique of traditional criticism of empiricism: 'It would be appropriate to emphasize that the concrete methods of public opinion research do not have an intrinsic anti-democratic character, but that the object of the research itself, that is public opinion, is the result of a nondemocratic evolution and it is precisely to such evolution that the aim of research is subjected* (Splichal, 1987). We could also say, in different words, that what the polling booth represents and what polls measure, is the process of serialization of individuals of which Sartre spoke in his Critique de la Raison Dialectique*. But we are not there yet; we must still linger on the first invention and on an other type of deconstruction of the com mon sense of science, which is not either without danger. Keane stated it clearly: critique of the fiction of the omnicompetent citizen, an inevitable phase in any thought on the genesis of the notion pub-

* Cf. Sartre, 1960, who takes this example of voting in a booth as a sign of the more general process referred to under this term - also see Offerl (1986) on this subject. 134


lie opinion, may very well be constructed on another fiction, that of a classical and homogeneous democratic theory*. And we must still discuss that other stumbling block which can be led to by the critical comparison, common today, of this the ory and that of liberal political economy. Saying that the omnicompetent citizen in the one, and that which corresponds to him in the other - the individual who is rational in both his economic and political choices - are one and the same fiction, is perhaps not false in itself. But this can also conceal the subjection, which for certain is already complete, ofthe political system to the market, even if the latter does not function according to the dreams of those who once believed they were dis covering the amazing predisposition in man to know always, in matters concern ing him, how to make the best choice. It is thus difficult to choose one's words to say that opinion is no longer what it never was, whilst agreeing on certain points. At the two theoretical extremes in this field, is one not talking here of a 'marketplace of ideas', and there of clientle and of political products?

market. In the one, the public composed of discussion circles, peers crowned by Parliament; on the other, a market of free competition between entrepreneurs. In the same way as prices are the result of negotiations between anonymous individ uals of equal strength, public opinion is the result of the thought of each individ ual contributing, by his weight, to the general formation of opinion' (Mills, quoted by Padioleau (1981), p. 166). Saying in this way what had almost become conventional - that to the utilita rian rationality of homo oeconomicus, corresponds that of the elector - is a starting point, perhaps also in another way a finishing point, but is not however of much help in understanding the fate of such a notion as public opinion. Cert ainly, if we return to what we have just called a finishing point, it is not merely for anecdotal facility that we note that the main opinion survey institutes are often only divisions of market research bodies; that, in particular, the old relationship between homo politicus and homo oecon omicus is theoretically and methodologic ally Justified by the majority practice of these institutes which have adopted the principles of methodological individual ism, like the definition of public opinion given by one of the most recent diction aries of sociology: 'Accumulation of simi larindividual opinions on problems of public interest' (Bourdan et al, 1989).

Once these precautions have been taken, it is nevertheless advisable to remember that in both the vocabulary of political philosophy and in that of political econ omy one must simultaneously look for the definitions and modern attributes of the notion public opinion. Both, we know, start from a common notion (the sover eign), from the same space (the The problem is that there is no certainty people/nation space for Rousseau, the that between the starting and finishing market space as a place of exchange for points one will find that obvious filiation Adam Smith*). Both have developed the in which we are meant to believe. Is this same vision of social exchange, where the subject, 'supposedly totally free of any notions of rationality and individualism belonging to a group, class, nation, and entirely moved by rational behaviour' occupy a central place. Mills is no doubt the one who updated these relations the (Spire, 1983) the same - we are talking most clearly. The idea of public opinion here on the representation level - as that in the eighteenth century can be com imagined in the eighteenth century, as pared to the economic notion of a free historical leaps which are too easy and too * Keane (1982), p. 13 and pp. 39-40, note 6. On this subject also see Keane (1984). t Cf. on this subject Mairet, in Smith (1976).



rapid seem to want to have us believe? Nothing is less sure. In the meantime, reality is responsible for making theories evolve, and new theories have also made reality evolve. It is herein that one of the major difficulties in talking of public opinion, in a necessarily

cal and sociological perspective, resides. All that we wanted to say here, is that we cannot rethink this notion without resti tuting, in all its aspects and in their superposition, that temporal depth pecul iar to all social science subjects.

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