Module Details

GV917-7-FY-CO: Public Opinion And Political Behaviour

Year: 2016/17
Department: Government
Essex credit: 30
ECTS credit: 15
Available to Study Abroad / Exchange Students: Yes
Full Year Module Available to Study Abroad / Exchange Students for a Single Term: Yes
Outside Option: No

Supervisor: Professor Paul Whiteley
Teaching Staff: Professor Paul Whiteley
Contact details: Module Supervisor: Professor Whiteley, Module Administrator: Alex West,

Module is taught during the following terms
Autumn Spring Summer

Module Description

The aim of this course is to introduce students to the latest theoretical debates about the nature, significance, measurement and analysis of public opinion. In addition it aims to provide them with the background knowledge and practical skills needed to undertake surveys of public opinion. These are required by anyone seeking employment in polling and market research industry or who wishes to conduct further research in the fields of political attitudes and behaviour.
The course examines three broad issues:
How do we Understand Public Opinion?
* How do citizens acquire information and convert it into opinions?
* Given that it is rational for individuals not to invest too much in acquiring political knowledge, how do they manage to learn what they know?
* Can politicians and the media influence public opinion and if so, how?

How do we measure Public Opinion?
* Polls and surveys. How do the public understand opinion questions in surveys and how can we go about measuring this?
* Sampling Theory. How do we select representative samples in order to understand what the public really thinks?
* Measurement and Scaling. How do we measure opinion accurately? What type of measurement scales are available to help us do this?

How do we analyse Public Opinion?
* Correlation and Regression methods. Bivariate and multivariate regression, and path analysis.
* Factor analysis and Data reduction techniques. Principal components and principal factor analysis, latent versus manifest opinion measures and measurement error.

Learning and Teaching Methods

The module is based around two-hour seminars in the autumn term and at the start of the Spring term. From week 19 (Week beginning Feb 8th) in the spring term we will have one hour classes followed by computer laboratory sessions of an hour.
In addition a revision class will be arranged in the Summer Term (week 30).


100 per cent Coursework Mark


2 essays of 3,000 words (30% each) plus a 2 hour class test (40%)

Other information


By the end of the course students should have a good working knowledge of
* The latest theoretical debates about the nature and dynamics of public opinion
* An understanding of the processes of opinion formation, the nature of public reasoning about political issues and interpersonal influences on opinion including the role of the mass media
* A sound understanding of the techniques used to measure opinion within a variety of settings
* A working knowledge of the statistical theory required to select representative samples of the population
* An understanding of the main multivariate techniques used to analyse public opinion data including data reduction techniques and regression analysis

Learning Outcomes
Key Skills
The seminar will engage students in interactive discussions and group study skills. It will foster critical thinking, problem solving, collaborative learning and oral communication. Essays will help develop the ability to organise facts and data and produce a logical, coherent and empirically supported argument. The seminars will also help to develop the capacity for critical judgement. The laboratory sessions will develop the skills needed for the quantitative analysis of polling data as well as information technology skills. They will also provide knowledge of the statistical methods and software needed for the analysis of surveys of public opinion. The key skills are:
* Communications – oral presentations; writing clearly and working to a deadline
* Collaboration – interacting with others in academic debates
* Information Technology – online searching, word processing, statistical analysis
* Problem solving – analysing quantitative and qualitative evidence, summarizing complex findings from surveys and identifying trends in data
* Numeracy – Data analytic and statistical skills, interpreting bivariate and multivariate models
* Work experience – students can opt to take a three week work placement with a polling agency, subject to availability.


  • C. Glynn, S. Herbst, G. O'Keefe, R. Shapiro, Public Opinion (Westview Press, 1999).
  • J. Zaller, The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion, (Cambridge University Press, 1992)
  • R. Tourangeau, L. Rips and K. Rasinski, The Psychology of Survey Response, Cambridge University Press, 2000.
  • D. DeVaus, Surveys in Social Research, London: Routledge, 2004.
  • A Field, Discovering Statistics Using SPSS, London: Sage, 2005.

Further information