“The Influence of Public Opinion and Advocacy on Public Policy: Controversies and Conclusions"

“The Influence of Public Opinion and Advocacy on Public Policy: Controversies and Conclusions,” Pp. 738-760 in The New Handbook of Political Sociology, edited by Thomas Janoski, Cedric de Leon, Joya Misra, and Isaac William Martin. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020.

Research on the impact of public opinion and advocacy organizations on policy has important implications for our understanding of democratic politics.  Does the government respond to the public, as it should, or to advocacy organizations?  Research on the impact of public opinion and research on the impact of advocacy organizations are both plagued by the same problem: for decades there has been intense disagreement about how much public opinion and advocacy organizations matter.  This paper considers problems in current research, and suggests how overcoming them could help resolve the disagreements.  It goes on to argue, however, that the debates themselves may be problematic, because if research focused on a random sample of issues rather than a few seen as especially interesting, it would conclude that neither public opinion nor advocacy can have much impact on policy–public opinion because on most issues it doesn’t exist, and advocacy organizations because, in line with Olson’s theory of collective action, on most issues there will be few organizations and little organizational activity.  Implications for future research are discussed.

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