The Creation of Modern Public Opinion. A History of Opinion Polling in Europe and North America, 1920-1980

Observers of contemporary politics all agree on the crucial role which public opinion polls have come to play in modern democracies. For some reason, the spectacular rise of public opinion research after 1945 is a phenomenon largely ignored by historians. Those few historical studies which do engage with the emergence of public opinion polling and its effects on political practice mostly adapt a national focus. Yet the rise of opinion polling is not only a common characteristic of democracies in the second half of the twentieth century. It is also a genuinely international development, based on an exchange of ideas, practices and personnel across borders, and influenced by the observation of events and advances in other countries. Indeed, although the practice of opinion polling is largely set within a national framework, the international context and transnational exchanges decisively shaped the process of its establishment in widely differing democratic systems. At the same time, these national frameworks are of crucial importance for explaining the variety of ways in which opinion polling became an integral part of modern democratic practice. With my research project I aim to answer the question of how “public opinion” came to be widely equated with the products of opinion polling organizations, and the effects this had on the relationship between public and politics, by analysing different developments – and their interconnectivity – in the United States, Britain, France and West Germany. I focus on the years between 1920 and 1980. During this period, the shift from earlier normative-political and philosophical theories towards psychological and sociological conceptualizations of public opinion based on quantitative approaches triggered continuous criticism, especially from political scientists and sociologists.

My project uses a historical approach to analyse the emergence, diffusion and impact of opinion polling. Whilst engaging with the research on the subject by political scientists, it does not aim to provide a systematic or comprehensive overview of the phenomenon. It will trace the history of opinion polling through various of the individuals who were involved in this process, whether as pollsters, social scientists, journalists or politicians, and through the networks which linked them together. The proposed study thereby pulls together a variety of historiographical strands. With its emphasis on interconnectivity, interactive spaces and networks, it applies key concepts of recent global history. At the same time, the nation remains an important analytical category, which is why the chosen approach can be more accurately described as transnational rather than global. The study will also engage with the concept of ‘Westernization’, which describes the emergence of a common transatlantic value system, in which ideas and values are not transported by cultural transfer on a one-way street from one country to another, but where they are circulated as part of an intercultural transfer between different countries. Both methodologically and in terms of subject matter, my project thus hopes to make a significant contribution to the history of democratic practice in the twentieth century.


Dr Bernhard Fulda (History, Sidney Sussex) is an Early Career Fellow at CRASSH, Lent 2011.


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