How “public opinion”

Via: Le Monde Diplomatique



By Pierre Bourdieu (This text was extracted from Sur l’etat. Cours au collège de France 1989-1992, Raisons d Agir – Le Seuil, Paris, that will appear on the 5th of January).

What is the process by which a minority opinion becomes the public opinion? That is what explains the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu in this course on the State passed in 1990 at the Collège de France.


Cómo se forma la “opinión pública”

An official man is a ventriloquist who speaks in the name of the State: it takes an official position –you would have to describe the scene of the officer–, speaking for and on behalf of the group to which it is addressed, speaks for and in the name of all, speak in both representative of the universal.

Here we come to the modern notion of public opinion. What is this public opinion that invoked the creators of the law of modern societies, societies in which the Right exists? Tacitly, it is the opinion of the majority or of those who have, those who are worthy of having an opinion. I think that the definition of the patent in a society that calls itself democratic, that is to say where the official opinion is the opinion of all, it hides a definition latent, namely, that the public opinion is the opinion of those who are worthy of having an opinion. There is a kind of definition censitaria of public opinion as the view illustrated, as an opinion worthy of the name.

The logic of official commissions is to create a group so constituted that exhibits all the external signs, socially recognized and recognizable, the ability to express the opinion worthy of being expressed, and in the ways established. One of the criteria of tacit more important to select the members of the commission, in particular its president, is the intuition that has the people in charge of composing the commission that the person in question knows the unspoken rules of the universe, bureaucratic and recognized: in other words, someone that knows how to play the game commission in a legitimate way that goes beyond the rules of the game, which legitimizes the game; never are they more in the game than when going beyond the game. In any game there are rules and fair-play. To purpose of man kabil (1), or of the intellectual world, I had used the formula: excellence, in most societies, it is the art of playing with the rule of the game, making that game with the rule of the game a supreme tribute to the game. The transgressor controlled is opposed completely to the heretical.

The dominant group coopta members from minimum rates of behavior, which are the art of respecting the rule of the game up in the transgressions-regulated the rule of the game: the decorum, composure. It is the famous sentence from Chamfort: “The Grand Vicar may smile on a topic against Religion, the Bishop, laughing heartily, Cardinal to add to what he has to say” (2). The more you climb in the hierarchy of excellencies, the more we can play with the rule of the game, but as an ex-officio, from a position which does not admit of any doubt. The humor anticlerical of the cardinal is supremely clerical.

The truth of all

The public opinion is always a kind of double reality. Is what can not be invoke when you want to legislate on lands that are not constituted. When you say “There is a legal vacuum” (extraordinary expression), for the purpose of euthanasia or the test tube babies, it convenes people who work applying all his authority. Dominique Memmi (3) describes an ethics committee [on the artificial procreation], composed by people of mixed –psychologists, sociologists, women, feminists, archbishops, rabbis, scholars, etc– whose aim is to transform a sum of idiolectos (4) ethical in a discourse universal that it fills a legal vacuum, that is to say that input a formal solution to a difficult problem that has disturbed the society –legalize surrogacy, for example. If you work in that kind of situation, must be invoked public opinion. In this context, it is very clear the role given to the surveys. To say “the polls are on our side”, is the equivalent of saying “God is on our side”, in another context.

But the theme of the surveys is cumbersome, because sometimes the view illustrated is against the death penalty, while the polls are rather in favour. What to do? A commission is formed. The commission is a public opinion enlightened that will establish the opinion illustrated as an opinion legitimate in the name of public opinion –that, on the other hand, says otherwise or thinks nothing (which usually happens in regard to many issues)–. One of the properties of the surveys consists in the want to ask the people issues that she is not asked, to suggest answers to problems that she has not been raised; therefore, to impose answers. It is not a question of bias in the construction of the samples, is the fact impose on all the world questions that will be asked, to the view illustrated, and, for this reason, produce answers to problems that arise, only some of you; therefore give answers that are illustrated, since they have been produced by the question: have been created for the people questions that did not exist to her when it really mattered, it was the issue itself.

I’m going to traducirles on-the-fly to a text of Alexander Mackinnon, 1828, extracted from a book of Peel on Herbert Spencer (5). Mackinnon defines the public opinion; and gives the definition that would be official if it were not shameful in a democratic society. When we speak of public opinion, always plays a double game between the definition confesable (everyone’s opinion) and the opinion of the authorised and efficient, which is obtained as a restricted subset of the public, democratically defined:

“It’s that feeling on any topic that is grown, produced by the people more informed, more intelligent and more moral community. This opinion extends gradually and is adopted by all people with any education and sense that it is in a civilized State”. The truth of the dominant, becomes the all.

How to legitimize a discourse

In the 1880s, in the National Assembly was said openly what sociology had to rediscover, that is to say, the school system had to remove the children from the most disadvantaged classes. At the beginning the question arose, but was then totally suppressed because, without being asked, the school system began to do what was expected of him. Then, there was no need to talk about the topic. The interest return on the genesis is very important, because in the beginning there are discussions where you say with all the letters things, then, appear as thought-provoking revelations of the sociologists.

The player of what the official knows how to produce –in the etymological sense of the term: producere, which means “to move forward”–, teatralizándolo, something that does not exist (in the sense of the sensible, visible), and in the name of what he speaks of. You must produce that in the name of what that you have the right to produce. No you can not theatricalize, nor shape, nor do miracles. For a creator verbal, the miracle is the most common miracle-verbal, the successful rhetorician; it must produce the staging of what is permitted their say, to put it another way, of the authority in the name of which is authorized to speak.

Find the definition of the feeling I was looking for: “rhetorical Figure by which to speak and act to a person that is evoked, to an absent, dead, an animal, a thing personified”. And in the dictionary, that is always a formidable instrument, is this phrase in Baudelaire’s talking about poetry: “to Manage wisely a language is to practice a kind of sorcery evocatoria”. Lawyers, who handle a language scholar –as the jurists and poets, have that put in scene the regarding imagination on behalf of which you speak and that they produce talking in the forms; they have to make to exist that which they express, and what in the name of which they are expressed. Must simultaneously produce a discourse and to produce the belief in the universality of his speech through the production sensitive (in the sense of evoking the spirits, the ghosts –the State is a ghost…–) that thing that guarantees what they do: “the nation”, “workers”, “village”, “the secret State”, “national security”, “social demand”, etc

Percy Schramm showed how the coronation ceremonies were the transfer, in the political order, religious ceremonies (6). If the ceremonial and religious can be transferred so easily to the ceremonies policy by the ceremony of the coronation, because in both cases, the idea is to make you believe that there is a foundation of the discourse that only appears as self-founded, legitimate, universal, because there is dramatization –in the sense of evocation magic, witchcraft– the united group and that you agree to accept the discourse that binds it. From there the ceremonial law. The british historian E. P. Thompson emphasized the role of the dramatization legal in the EIGHTEENTH century English –wigs, etc–, that can not be understood in its totality if it is not considered that it is not a simple artifact, in the sense of Pascal, which would be added: it is constitutive of the legal act (7). To impart justice in a suit conventional is risky: you run the risk of losing the pomp of the speech. Always talk of reform of the legal language without never do it, because it is the last of the garments: the bare kings because they are not charismatic.

Pure theatre

One of the most important dimensions of the dramatization is the dramatization of the interest for the general interest; it is the dramatization of the conviction of the interest in the universal, the disinterest of the political man –dramatization of the belief of the priest, of the conviction of the political man, of his faith in what he does–. If the dramatization of the conviction is part of the implicit conditions of the exercise of the profession of the clergy –if a professor of philosophy has to pretend to believe in the philosophy–, it is because this is the tribute essential the official-man official; it is what there is to add to the officer to be an officer: you need to add the interest, the faith in what is official, to be a true official. Selflessness is not a virtue secondary: it is the political virtue of all the representatives. The follies of the priests, the political scandals, are the crumbling of this kind of political belief on which all the world acts in bad faith, because that belief is a kind of bad faith collective, in the sense sartreano: a game in which all the world is lies and lies to the others, knowing that they lie. This is the official…



1. Allusion to an ethnological study that Bourdieu conducted on the berber kabiles.

2. Nicolas de Chamfort, Maximes et pensées, Paris, 1795.

3. Dominique Memmi, “Savants et maîtres à penser. The fabrication d’une morale de la procréation artificielle”, Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, No. 76-77, 1989, p. 82-103.

4. From the Greek idios, “private”: speech particular.

5. John David Yeadon Peel, Herbert Spencer. The Evolution of a Sociologist, London, Heinemann, 1971. William Alexander Mackinnon (1789-1870) had a long career as a member of the british Parliament.

6. Percy Ernst Schramm, Der König von Frankreich. Das Wesen der Monarchie von 9 zum 16. Jahrhundert. Ein Kapital aus Geschichter des abendlischen Staates (two volumes), H. Böhlaus Nachf, Weimar, 1939.

7. Edward Palmer Thompson, “Patrician society, plebeian culture”, Journal of Social History, vol 7, No. 4, Berkeley, 1976, p. 382-405.

* Sociologist (1930-2002). This text is excerpted from Sur l’etat. Cours au collège de France 1989-1992, Raisons d Agir – Le Seuil, Paris, which will appear on 5 January.

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