A brief history of opinion polls

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The evolution of public opinion surveys and of opinion polls is closely related with the historical progression of universal suffrage.

In fact the first movements toward universal suffrage occurred in the early 19th century, at the very time where the first opinion polls were born. Until then, the only model where some experiment of direct democracy prevailed was the city-state of Athens.

For thousands of years the idea of democratic referendum was forgotten, decisions being made by wealthy and scientific elites, until new means of communication led to revolutionary changes in decision systems; the development of mass printing and the emergence of a larger "enlightened" audience allowed new democratic reflections to spread, up to the French and American revolutions and the birth of universal suffrage.

In parallel, major advances in the scientific world would be the germ of public opinion analysis and survey. The Theory of Probability and the Central Limit Theorem, born after the works of Pascal, Fermat and Bernouilli in the 18th century would set the foundations for statistics and polls theory, extending the early "intuitive" works of England's Graunt and Petty on population analysis one century earlier.

In the US, polls went through newspapers to the people in 1824, when two newspapers, the Harrisburg Pennsylvanian and the Raleigh Star, organized "show votes" to determine the political preferences of voters prior to the presidential election of that year.
The people had eventually a chance to express their voice. The growing attention to public opinion is illustrated by Abraham Lincoln's declaration: "What I want to get done is what the people desire to have done, and the question for me is how to find that out exactly."

The next stage in the development of opinion polls came with the rise of social sciences and foundation by George Gallup of the American Institute of Public Opinion in 1936, bringing sociology and statistics into the public consciousness. Public opinion on virtually every political, social or economic issue of the day could now be heard.

Polling techniques consist essentially today of proved sampling techniques and of correlation/significance intervals analysis. Little progress is now made on the analysis itself of public opinion, but the development of the internet, as the development of the printing press in its time, is now potentially giving opinion polls an even larger audience, as free as ever to express itself.

It is encouraging to see today the birth on the internet of a new form of informal participative democracy, using channels outside of the insitutionnal frameworks, where debates can take place and every voice be heard.

Links :
Encyclopedia.com - The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2008 - Poll
Wikipedia - Gallup poll
PBS - History of Opinion Polling