The Spiral of Silence Theory – introduction

Among the theories explaining how public opinion forms, the spiral of silence theory features prominently. According to this theory, formulated by Noelle-Neumann in the 1970s, individuals are usually aware of the perspectives of the people around them, which moderates their opinion to achieve conformity with the majority, out of a fear that speaking out their independent opinion would put them on the losing side (Donsbach & Traugott, 2008, p. 175). Specifically, the theory’s premise advances a state where individuals have a sense – probably inaccurate – of the proportion of the population who are in support or opposition to a particular issue, and would base their subsequent actions based on these prior assessment (Donsbach & Traugott, 2008). To acquaint themselves with these perspectives, they rely of information relayed on such avenues as the media (Perry & Gonzenbach, 2000). Despite the possibility that such prior assessment could be inaccurate, the spiral of silence theory discounts the inaccuracy consideration, arguing that it is the perception of the existing distribution of opinion rather than the actual distribution that influences an individual’s contingent behavior.

A core premise of the spiral of silence theory concerns the fear of isolation. According to this concept, individuals who do not observe norms and conventional perspectives are relegated to isolation and, at times, expulsion by the existing social systems follows the disregard. Accordingly, individuals would be in constant fear of acting contrary to such perspectives or expressing contrary opinions to avoid exclusion from social life (Donsbach & Traugott, 2008). Following such a premise, the theory posits that groups such as the minority would hold back their opinions, an act that over time would make them seem progressively weak whereas pronouncing the visibility of the majority group. Ultimately, such an aspect would entrench the majority’s opinion as the norm in society; individuals would be in conformity with conventional opinion to avoid isolation (Donsbach & Traugott, 2008). For an issue to be capable of generating a fear of isolation, Noelle-Neumann had argued that it had to be moral and value-laden (Perry & Gonzenbach, 2000)  In this respect, the application of the spiral of silence theory could be in various society aspects from political through religious to civil rights. The subject of this paper is thus to review the validity of the theory, by assessing the findings and designs of studies that have been conducted to test application of the theory in different contexts.

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