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The effect of public opinion on the subjects of educational research

Peter Roguszka
University of Notre Dame
Educational research almost invariably inquires into what the phenomena of education are. My recent research was inspired by the very different question of why an educational phenomenon occurred. The findings of the research show that public opinion plays a significant role in generating the phenomena we see occurring in education. In reaching this conclusion it was necessary to examine the nature of public opinion and how it is generated. Important in understanding the generation of public opinion is knowledge of how opinions are formed, developed and changed in the individual. In this process there comes a point at which it is impossible for the individual to have first hand knowledge of all the factors that combine to create an understanding of social life on which to base opinions. It is at this point that an elite discourse, provided by the wide range of information and entertainment media, becomes important in providing the information on which the development and change of opinions are based. To have an understanding of this process and the nature of elite discourse can be a very useful tool in making sense of the educational phenomena researchers seek to understand by explaining the reasons for their occurrence.


An examination of the topics presented at last year's WAIER Research Forum, like almost any list of educational research topics, reveals that the questions being asked about education are almost exclusively concerned with the questions what?, how? or possibly when. That is: what are the phenomena that are occurring in education? How are these phenomena manifesting? And when did phenomena occur. Significantly absent from these areas of research is the question Why? In many cases it is relatively easy to make a judgement about the reason for a phenomenon occurring in education as they are the result of specific policy decisions made within the administration organisations or are required to fulfil the demands of developments in curriculum. However, there are a number of phenomena in education that can have significant impacts on the success of collective efforts to provide effective education to the people for whom education is provided that occur for reasons with little obvious relevance to education.

One such phenomenon was a perceived change in the subjects being chosen by students at year eleven and twelve levels. This was noted by a number of teachers in small Northern Territory high schools in the early nineteen nineties who found it increasingly difficult to run classes in the arts and humanities subjects due to insufficient numbers of students choosing to study in those areas. At the same time there appeared to be a significant increase in the number of students choosing to study subjects in the business studies curriculum area. A number of explanations for this were suggested but none of them could explain the widespread and seemingly spontaneous nature of the change. At first that this was occurring was only supported by anecdotal evidence but the results were obvious to those involved in teaching in the arts and humanities areas and empirical evidence became available very quickly as the Northern Territory Board of Studies (NTBOS) and the Senior Secondary Accreditation Board of South Australia (SSABSA) published data concerning the number of individuals completing each subject unit. As this data confirmed that the phenomenon was real the concerns that it generated became relevant to consideration of the nature of education being provided at post-compulsory level.

Those teachers who had first noticed the changes occurring held some concerns for the nature of education being provided to the students who were choosing subjects that were far more vocational in nature than had previously been the case. These same concerns were expressed a little later by educationalists in the tertiary education sector who found that the move away from studies in the arts and humanities at senior high school level was leading to deficiencies in skills vital to successful university study (Healy 1995). Simply knowing that the problem existed was not enough as this did not provide a strong enough argument to justify change. At this point research into the 'why?' of the phenomenon became important if sufficient knowledge of the issue was to be gained to support an argument for action to ameliorate its effects.

The role of public opinion in educational change

As there had been no significant encouragement from educational administration to move in this way (the results of the Finn, Mayer and Charmichael reports were not being felt in schools at that time) it was clear that the stimulus for this change emanated from outside the education system. Students at post-compulsory level make their own choices about which subjects to study with the only constraints being imposed by the requirement to include English and the expectations of any future employer or tertiary education institution. As there had been no changes from these quarters the only source for the change was the students themselves and their parents. The nature of parents and their children have not changed significantly, leaving only changes to their understanding of the world as the only factor that could cause the phenomenon.

An individual's understanding of the world is shaped by what is frequently termed 'public opinion' (Lippman 1960). Unfortunately the terms 'opinion', 'public opinion' and the associated terms 'attitude', 'values', 'prejudice' etc. are in common usage and as such have a range of meaning associated with them. Because of this the first task, in reaching an understanding of the process by which public opinion led to the observed changes in education, is to define the terminology being used. For the purpose of this presentation it is only important to deal with the two major terms: attitude and opinion:

It is worth noting that the notion of public opinion as it is generally used is very similar to the above definition of attitude; it can be readily changed by the receipt of information that has a powerful effect on the individual in the short time but may swing back to what it was previously when that effect wanes with time. If an attitude change is more enduring it then has the potential to force changes to the individual's underlying opinion.

Clearly there must have been a reason for the move to choosing vocational and business education subjects rather than arts and humanities. As the decision making process was one that included the students and their parents it was reasonable to consider what it was that these people based their decisions on.

The answer to this question lies partly in a definition of education itself:

Education has fundamental connections with the idea of human emancipation, though it is constantly in danger of being captured for other interests. In a society disfigured by class exploitation, sexual and racial oppression, and in chronic danger of war and environmental destruction, the only education worth the name is one that forms people capable of taking part in their own liberation (Connell, Ashenden, Kessler & Dowsett 1982, p.208).
The fact that little more than ten years had passed and the country was drawing away from the danger of war and oppression based on gender or race was receding, at least, a little does not weaken this definition. The gender issue was gaining recognition for its claims and the offer of a treaty with Aboriginal Australia had brought the race issue closer to a successful resolution (that in the later years of the decade this progress has been reversed does not bear on consideration of the situation at the time). Until the years immediately preceding the perceived phenomena parents and their children had made decisions about schooling based on ideas such as this, of course they were tempered with a consideration of the life directions the student aspired to but the latter were not the overwhelmingly dominant considerations.

As Connell et. al. note there was a danger of education being appropriated by groups within society which held a somewhat different view of society. It is this that, arguably, occurred. The discourse of an influential group, the main providers of information via the various media (thus creating an information disseminating elite), because of its ubiquity provided the social environment in which a change of public opinion could develop. In the preceding years young people from lower socio-economic backgrounds made careful choices in schooling to achieve an upward social mobility; if they could! "A number [of school leavers] do aspire to work which they do not stand a chance of getting, either because they have not got the ability or because they have not followed the appropriate educational path"(Carter 1966, p.107) (my emphasis). The expectation had now been created by this elite discourse's effect on public opinion where all school leavers aspiring to find work should follow "the appropriate educational paths".

Having identified this change in society's relationship with education it became clear that to fully understand the ways in which it occurred it would be necessary to examine how public opinion came to be both formed and changed. The notion of public opinion implies that a large group of people within society (the public) could hold identifiably similar opinions about particular issues. Any issue that could be the subject of public opinion must be a political one (Zaller 1992), that is, an issue that relates to the way in which society is structured and controlled. However, opinions can not be held collectively by a group of people, rather it is the individual that holds the opinion and so becomes a part of the group of other individuals holding that opinion. If the group grows sufficiently it will come to qualify as a 'public'. Once this is understood it becomes clear that to understand the development of public opinion it is necessary to gain an understanding of the opinion formation, development and change processes in relation to the individual.

Opinion formation

Formation of an opinion must begin when the object of the opinion is first encountered. For example, if a person who had never encountered a hand writing implement such as a pen or pencil, or handwriting saw a pen being used an opinion about it would begin to form. The opinion would necessarily be very crude but would, nevertheless, be available for development and change. This initial opinion is likely to be something like 'there exists stick like objects that can be used to make marks on surfaces.' While this description of an initial opinion appears to be fairly obvious there is a personality trait that could affect the nature of it. The temperament of this individual could modify the opinion in the areas where there are potential alternative: a very suspicious, distrusting temperament could colour the opinion in relation to how the marks appear or whether there may be other similar artefacts in existence and so on. These areas of divergence are likely to affect the ways in which subsequent development and change occur. While the example used is rather fixed and socially inconsequential it serves to illustrate how the nature of the formation of an opinion could affect the eventual opinion held.

From this point it becomes evident that if temperament is a contributor to opinion development then the factors that determine temperament must also have an effect. What this demonstrates is that developmental psychology must be relevant to the development of opinion and gain an understanding of how opinion are formed and changed it is important to be aware of the ways in which the individual has developed psychologically. Temperament is the first factor to be considered in the development of an individual as it is identifiable as early as the third month of life (Thomas & Chess 1977, p.153), the second is the development of the personality which begins after the first year of life but continues throughout it. Because it is an ongoing process the development of personality is affected by a wide range of factors. The work of Freud (1923), Pavlov (1906), Erikson (1963), Piaget (1929) and Kohlberg (1964, 1969, 1976 & 1981) are important to the understanding of not only the development of personality but also the ways in which these developments relate to the ways in which opinions are formed and developed.

Having established that temperament and personality provide the bases for the initial formation and early development of opinion it becomes necessary to examine the ways that these traits are developed to affect the acquisition and change opinion. Factors that are important in this sphere are: prejudice (see Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson & Sanford 1950 and Zaller 1992), which has much of its origin in early socialisation and experience of the child, and the adoption of stereotypical descriptions (see Lippman 1960), the origins of which are more dependant upon the culture the child is brought up in than the immediate familial environment (Connell 1971). As the child grows older, and into adulthood, the effects of membership of or association with groups within the community also have an increasing impact on the development his opinions as is suggested by Social identity theory (Tajfel & Turner 1986 and Brown 1995).

Opinion change

Once there has been an opinion formed and developed it is possible for it to be changed. The vital factor in facilitating these changes is information. To enable an individual's opinion to change there must be a stimulant for it. There are a range of cognitive theories of opinion or attitude change each allocating a degree of emphasis to various factors that are able to affect the evaluative process of the individual.

The first of these are collectively referred to as consistency theories (Heider 1946, Heider 1958, Cartwright and Harare 1956, Feather 1967, Weist 1965, Rosenberg and Abelson 1960, Osgood and Tannenbaum 1955) in which an individual is seen to exist in a state of psychological comfort in relation to the beliefs, attitudes an d opinions held. When information is received that creates a level of discomfort in relation to these feelings the situation arises where a change must occur or the information is rejected. As there is an implied participation on the part of the individual in rejecting or accepting new information and consequently making the changes the theory allows for contradictory attitudes to be held as the nature of the logic that is used allows for the rejecting of information in certain instances while accepting it in relation to others. A variation of consistency theory is represented by dissonance theory (Festinger 1957) which considers the level of psychological discomfort generated by the acceptance on new information creating the need to make a choice in relation to the attitudes held. The importance of dissonance theory is that it suggests that an individual will actively seek out information that is able to reduce the dissonance created by accepting new information. The fact that information is sought is particularly relevant as the ways in which information is transmitted to the individual is on e of the central issues relating to this study.

A third group of cognitive theories of attitude change is known as those of cognitive response. On receiving information cognitive response theories suggest that the individual attempts to fit it into the beliefs and attitudes already held. Cognitive response theories make an attempt to explain how the individual actually thinks about the information being received and the issues that surround it. The important thing is that there is a component of active involvement in attitude change that is being considered (Petty & Caccioppo 1981).

A proposed model for explaining attitude change

It must be remembered that for the purposes of this study opinion represents a deeply held conviction that is not easily changed while attitudes are less deeply held and available for relatively easy change. Attitude has the potential to force changes to opinion, albeit slowly, by a process that can be likened to a float attached to a heavy object sunk in a tidal estuary. The float is buffeted in many directions by the tide, the current of the river and winds from all directions. The only force that is not cancelled out is that of the river current which will slowly change the position of the heavy object downstream by its constant pressure on the float above. Attitudes are represented by the float while the heavy object represents opinion that is only changed by a consistent pressure exerted on attitudes in one particular direction. The pressures are created by information which almost exclusively is provided by elite discourse, even that which does not appear to have its origin in elite discourse arrives via other conduits such as friends, associates or relatives is most likely to have had its origin in elite discourse.

A universal concern of researchers into the ways in which public opinion is changed and developed is that of "how citizens learn about matters that are for the most part beyond their immediate experience, and how they convert the information they acquire into [attitudes]" (Zaller 1992, p.40). The source of this information is referred to as 'elite discourse', that is, information, discussion and comment delivered by the media. The ways in which this information is received and processed by individuals to alter their attitudes are used as the basis of the model of public opinion change. This model is used in this study to suggest how public opinion in Australia has developed to the point it has now reached.

This model, the Receive-Accept-Sample (RAS) model is made up of four axioms:

The greater a person's level of cognitive engagement with an issue, the more likely he or she is to be exposed to and comprehend (in a word, to receive) political messages concerning that issue.
People tend to resist arguments that are inconsistent with their political predispositions, but they do so only to the extent that they possess the contextual information necessary to perceive a relationship between the message and their predispositions.
The more recently a consideration has been called to mind or thought about, the less time it takes to retrieve that consideration or related considerations from memory and bring them to the top of the head for use.
Individuals answer survey questions by averaging across the considerations that are immediately salient or accessible to them (Zaller 1992, pp. 42-49).

Having accepted the RAS model as a workable means to gaining an understanding of hoe public opinion is developed and changed, the next step is to incorporate it into an examination of the basis for the development of Australian public opinion. It must be remembered that public opinion does not equate with the definition of opinion, rather it equates much more closely with what is considered to be attitude.

Both attitude and opinion rely on more than just elite discourse for their formation, development and change. Culture and tradition are extremely important in the generation of opinions and attitudes and as these are specific to a nation's society. To understand how opinion has developed in Australia it is necessary to examine the history of the nation and identify events that have had a lasting impact on the culture and the traditions of the country. Once this understanding is gained it becomes possible to analyse the information presented by elite discourse in relation to it, thus revealing how opinion has reached the point it now occupies.

To allow for a full analysis of elite discourse it is essential to understand the nature of the ownership of the providers of it. A knowledge of those who own and consequently control the media that supply elite discourse allows an analysis to be made of the ideology and motivation that lies behind it which is arguably a significant factor contributing to the development and change of attitudes and opinion.

Australian history, like that of most nations, is one that gives greatest import to those events and identities that reflect the aspirations of a relatively small number of individuals who hold power and are most benefited by the ways in which it is wielded. In the early days of Colonial Australia these individuals were drawn from those chosen to form an administration and those who followed shortly after bringing money and a determination to set themselves up as a landed aristocracy. Since those early days virtually all power has been dispensed by their successors, even to the point of them dictating the nature of the democracy that Australia now enjoys. That the owners of the media in Australia should be associated with this small group of powerful citizens is of no surprise when the extent of the influence that the media has is considered.

Having reached a point where the background of how the dominant public opinion of an era, that is, the attitudes of a majority of the people at the time, is generated this information was used as a means of explaining a phenomenon occurring within education in the early 1990s. That the public opinion was at a particular point at the time is insufficient to explain the phenomenon as educational decision making is not based on attitude. Rather, it is dependent on a deeper held conviction - what has been termed here, opinion. The argument presented is that the attitudes that represent the dominant public opinion, and the discourse that generated it, had been consistent and persistent to a sufficient degree to cause a shift in those more deeply held convictions that opinion is dependent on.

The observed educational phenomenon was one that can be argued to disadvantage a group of individuals through compromising their potential by the removal of important skills from the education they receive. These skills are important for the development of a flexibility of outlook that is vital in a quickly changing environment in which jobs an individual is trained for today are unlikely to exist in just a few years time. In their place have been placed employment specific training components of curriculum that have significant advantages for some employers, in the short term, but may well be useless in even the medium term. The great beneficiaries of this phenomenon are a small elite group within society which includes the providers of elite discourse. Public opinion (that is attitude) has been changed in such a way as to cause the opinions of individuals to serve not their own interests but the interests of a small elite that already holds a privileged position in society

While it is argued that the opinion of a significant number of people had shifted in this manner it has to be acknowledged that elite discourse is not omnipotent as there is a significant minority whose opinion does not fall into line of that predicted by elite discourse. That this is consistent with the argument of this study exists within the axioms of the RAS model of attitude change. Axiom two of the model deals with an individuals tendency to resist persuasive messages from sources not considered to be consistent with their political predispositions. An interesting illustration of this is provided by the fact that Shadow Ministers in the current ALP opposition who were ministers in the Hawke/Keating governments, which were strongly supportive of Laissez faire economics, still maintain a contradictory stance towards economic rationalism. It could be argued that their discourse is beginning to have an effect on the opinions of their current colleagues with an increasing questioning of the validity of that approach to economic management.

Public opinion is more than an indicator of how public figures are performing in the eyes of the population. It is a phenomenon that has vital ramifications for the way in which the nation develops. That public opinion affects the way people understand the society in which they live has been shown to be beyond debate. With sufficient understanding of the processes that cause this to happen it is possible to predict how changes will occur or even enable the intervention to reduce the potential damage that these changes could cause. This understanding then becomes available for researchers in education to provide explanations for the occurrence of the phenomena they are conducting research into.


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Please cite as: Roguszka, P. (1999). The effect of public opinion on the subjects of educational research. Proceedings Western Australian Institute for Educational Research Forum 1999. http://www.waier.org.au/forums/1999/roguszka.html

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