Public opinion and public opinion research

The choice of topics for public debate, and the manner of the resulting discussions, usually reflect much more than simple attitudes to specific issues. Wider developments and their potential impact also play a role in providing a context for the debate. Sociological studies and opinion polls are conducted to establish public attitudes to specific issues, customers for which may include state agencies, NGOs, private companies and political organisations.

Coherent study of media use in Estonia began as early as 1969 when Eesti Raadio, the public radio station, established its Information and Computer Centre. This employed sociologists who acted as consultants as well as monitoring the reception of the press by its readers, gauging people’s expectations with respect to the public sphere as well as to the organisation of social life at large. The Information and Computer Centre was closed in 1994 by a management decision.

Social and cultural debate has proliferated in such magazines as Looming and Vikeraar, as well as in the weekly Sirp (formerly Sirp ja Vasar). Historically, Estonian intellectuals have always played an important role in ‘value formation’ and in the formulation of public opinion. Of the intellectuals who have published influential articles on a range of social issues, mention may be made of Mati Unt, Rein Raud, Jaan Kaplinski, Enn Soosaar, Andres Langemets, Juri Ehlvest, Alo Lohmus and Mihkel Mutt.

The general upsurge in social activity during the late 1980s was accompanied by a rise both in the expression and in the study of public opinion in Estonia. For example, in 1988, the magazine Eesti Loodus published Marju Lauristin’s article, “The phosphate syndrome and the development of public opinion”. Here, the author analysed the opposition as a social phenomenon, expressed in the mid-1980s to the prospect of mining phosphates in the Pandivere Highland. The article provided a scientific description of the formation of Estonian public opinion in the 1980s.

Public opinion research has gradually become somewhat of a controversial phenomenon. Several researchers have claimed that the institutions involved in opinion research themselves work as shapers of public opinion, and that public opinion itself can be regarded as an institution.

Public opinion research in Estonia is mostly conducted by the companies EMOR, SaarPoll, and Turu-uuringud AS, established in 1990. Their research topics have generally been concerned with the population’s attitudes to public institutions, and to the degree of trust enjoyed by the institutions, or by individual personalities, (see Fig.6). The conduct of such research over long time frames permits the evaluation of changes in attitude, and allows conclusions to be drawn on the direct and indirect factors influencing the changes.

Population's trust in the activity of the main state institutions

Institution I trust or fully trust Do not trust or do not trust at all Do not know
President 79 % 16 % 5 %
Estonian bank 71 % 20 % 9 %
Border guards 66 % 21 % 13 %
Defence Forces 65 % 19 % 13 %
City or rural municipality government 65 % 20 % 22 %
Security Police 58 % 20 % 22 %
State Audit Office 53 % 21 % 26 %
Government 51 % 43 % 6 %
Policei 50 % 42 % 8 %
Prime Minister 49 % 43 % 8 %
Court 47 % 33 % 20 %
Public Prosecutor's Office 46 % 19 % 35 %
Religious societies and churches 45 % 26 % 29 %
Riigikogu 45 % 48 % 7 %
Press 44 % 50 % 6 %
Trade unions 42 % 23 % 35 %
Other non-profit institutions 34 % 22 % 44 %
Political parties 22 % 56 % 22 %
Source: Riigikogu, May 2002

From time to time, e.g. during election campaigns, public opinion is granted an opportunity to influence the way in which the state is run. Nevertheless, society would have a chance to evolve more smoothly if, on such occasions, the public were invited to discuss real issues, their support not being merely solicited simply to agree politicians’ mandates. For the sake of democracy, the opportunities granted to politicians which allow them to subjugate public opinion must be curbed. The public also has to take action to shape itself into a naturally operational entity, to ensure that its widest interests are served.

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