“The public says…”: mobilising opinions and publics

By Helen Pallett

Balcombe protesters
Source: Guardian

A recent report authored by researchers at the University of Nottingham has indicated a shift in public opinion in Britain against the controversial practice of ‘fracking’, following the high profile protests in Balacombe, Sussex . This drop in the level of public support for the practice follows an increase in public support and acceptance of fracking, detected by the team at Nottingham University earlier in 2013. Another recent public opinion survey, this time carried out by the BBC, found that 6 out of 10 people felt that public services had been maintained or had improved since the start of the UK Government’s austerity drive.

These two headlines follow the oft-cited article in the Independent newspaper from earlier in the Summer entitled ‘British public wrong about nearly everything, survey shows‘, which compared public perception on topics such as crime and immigration to the ‘facts’ and found that many people were wildly off the mark. This survey could be read as undermining the common media trope of transforming public opinion surveys into easy punchy headlines, or even questioning the utility and necessity of consulting members of the public on important policy issues altogether.  Another interpretation of the survey is that it reveals public distrust and scepticism of government statisitcs and policy pronouncements. In which case public opinion surveys are a tool which can in some cases be used to challenge government positions and hold key figures to account.

Academic work has also sought to point out the potential methodological challenges in orchestrating and reporting on opinion surveys. These challenges encompass, for example: the potential for the wording and layout of specific questions to be leading – for example, see this post on how public responses to fracking depend on how it is framed; how a person’s perception of the organisation carrying out the survey may affect their responses; and approaches to sampling  – for example, is it appropriate to take a demographically representative sample of a whole population, when an opinion survey seeks views on public services which may only be used by a small section of that population?

More radical academic critiques of public opinion polling and other methods of ascertain public views and opinions have emerged from perspectives which views these methods as technologies designed to distill the public voice and create a stable representation of public views. In a recent article in the journal Area, Natalie Koch has considered the technology of focus groups, illuminating how this one technique has different results and effects in different contexts. In her study, Koch used focus groups to talk to citizens about their experience of their government in Kazakhstan. Removed from its liberal western European context, Koch observed the focus group operating very differently as a technology of government, leading its participants to largely repeat government rhetoric and suppress dissenting opinions. Koch concluded that the citizens in her study had not been socialised in the vocal expression of their thoughts, in the way that the imagined focus group participants had been.

The conclusion that these ‘technologies of government’ produce different results in different settings sensitises us not only to the differences in national context which Koch highlights, but also other differences across time and context. Whether public opinion surveys or focus groups, these methods create an artificially stable picture of a public which is both diverse and mobile. As the research at the University of Nottingham shows, public opinion can shift over a relatively short time, in response to events like social protest. As Richard Seymour has pointed out in his response to the BBC’s public service survey, public responses to these methods of elicitation are inevitably part of the same context in which these policy changes are occurring, in this case the change in the ideological climate of the UK which Seymour sees as running hand in hand with the government policy of austerity.

Public opinion surveys and other forms of ‘technologising the opinion’, as Koch puts it, can be powerful tools in expressing the public voice and forcing government actors to listen. But it is equally important to remember that they can only ever be a partial representation of the diverse, movable and unpredictable cacophony which is ‘the public’.

books_icon Natalie Koch, 2013 Technologising the opinion: focus groups, performance and free speech Area DOI: 10.1111/area.12039

60-world2 Sarah O’Hara & colleagues at the University of Nottingham, October 2013 Public perception of Shale gas extraction in the UK: the impact of the Balacombe protests in July-August 2013

60-world2 British public wrong about nearly everything, survey shows Independent, July 9

60-world2 Mark Easton Public service cuts – did we notice? BBC News, October 9

60-world2 Richard Seymour BBC austerity survey: why the public is wrong this time Guardian, October 9

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