Public Opinion and Polling - PO655

Sorry, this module is not currently running in 2020-21.


PO657 or equivalent data analysis module. Due to the complex nature of some of the sources on which the module will draw, and in the interests of progression, entry onto the module will be restricted to Stage 3 students.


Stage 3 only.



Democracy rests on the will of citizens. But how can we identify this ‘will’? Elections are one method; but more regular expressions of citizen views are possible via opinion polls. Indeed, a range of public and private bodies routinely use polls to identify popular attitudes. But what are the ‘opinions’ supposedly revealed by these polls, how do surveys go about identifying opinions and how valid are their results?

This module introduces students to the theory and practice of public opinion and its measurement. The module focuses on two main questions. First, what is public opinion? How far do people’s attitudes pre-exist and how far are they instead ‘shaped’ by the way questions are asked? Are attitudes informed and considered, or are they largely knee-jerk responses based on little information? If, in fact, citizens know little about politics, are there ways in which they can, nonetheless, form meaningful views on important public issues? The answers to these questions are central to the task of assessing the proper role of public opinion in modern democracies. The second question asks how public opinion is measured. What are the main features of social surveys, and how well do they measure public attitudes? This section of the module pays particular attention to the ways that different types of survey can affect the responses that people give, and to the principles and practices of effective survey design.


This module appears in:

Contact hours

Total contact hours: 22
Private study hours: 128
Total study hours: 150

Method of assessment

100% coursework: Essay, 3000 words (60%), Survey Specification, 2500 words (40%).

Indicative reading

• Floyd Fowler, Survey Research Methods, Sage (2013)
• Carroll Glynn et al, Public Opinion, Westview Press (2016)
• Vincent Price, Public Opinion, Sage (1992)
• Roger Tourangeau et al, The Psychology of Survey Response, Cambridge (2000)
• John Zaller, The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion, Cambridge (1992)

See the library reading list for this module (Canterbury)

Learning outcomes

Understand the nature and meanings of public opinion.
Understand the ways that public attitudes are formed; in particular, the ways that attitudes are shaped by external contexts and actors.
Identify and understand the ways in which public opinion is measured, and be familiar with some of the problems and difficulties involved in using surveys to measure public opinion.
Identify some of the key features of well designed surveys.
Identify and understand the main debates over the appropriate role of public opinion in modern democracies.

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