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Politicians and Public Opinion



What does public opinion mean for politicians? How do they refer to ‘the opinions of the public’ in political debates? To what extent does public opinion shapes political debates and public policy? These are the central questions that will be explored in this seminar. The seminar consists of a theoretical and a more empirical part. First, we will discuss the literature on public opinion with a clear focus on its meaning for political actors. This should give you insight on how this meaning has changed over time and place. Special attention will be given to the role of the growing number of opinion polls in Western democracies. This seminar also looks at the normative debate on public opinion and politicians: Should politicians be very responsive to public opinion, or rather follow their own opinions of what is in the public’s interest? This debate will be discussed in the light of different theories on democracy and representation.

In the second part of the seminar, you should conduct your own (mini) research into the relation between politicians and public opinion. The overall idea is to select a certain political issue or event that has given considerable attention in parliament and to analyse the references Members of Parliament made to public opinion. This can be done using a more qualitative in-depth approach or rather in a more quantitative way analysing a longer period of time. The case you select can be of any parliamentary democracy in the world. At the end of the seminar the different individual projects should be brought together in a single research report that compares the separate findings.

This seminar has two goals. The first is to make you familiar with the concepts, debates and earlier studies on public opinion and political actors. Furthermore it has the ambition to improve your empirical skills by analyzing political debates and writing up your findings.

Methods of Instruction

Lectures, discussion of assigned readings and your own presentations of findings.

Study Material

  • Manza, J., Lomax Cook, F., Page, B.I., (2002). Navigating public opinion. Polls, policy and the future of American democracy. Oxford University Press, New York.

  • Besides this book there will be a selected number of journal articles and book chapters that focus more on the European context (more info on Blackboard).


You will be mainly evaluated on the paper that presents your own research (60%), but also your active participation during the meetings (20%) and your contribution to the joined research report will be taken into account (20%).


Wednesday 8 September till 27 October, 11.00 – 13.00 hrs. in SA37 (except 22 September, 6 and 20 October in room SA05)
Friday 10 September till 29 October, 11.00 – 13.00 hrs. in 1A03.