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Spiral of Silence Theory

The Spiral of Silence Theory is one of the few theories in communication that focuses on public opinion. Indeed, the theory has been identified as an important foundation for examining the human condition (Csikszentmihalyi, 1991). The consequence of studying public opinion as Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann proposes is identified by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: "In an electoral democracy, but indeed even in the most tyrannical forms of government . . . the right to lead and to decide must eventually rest on the agreement of a significant segment of the population" (1991, p. 288). The theory has been called "extraordinarily influential" (Kennamer, 1990, p. 395), and others have labeled it "dynamic" (Merten, 1985), meaning that it underscores the process nature of communication that we discussed in Chapter 1. The theory has attracted scholars, making it heuristic. Researchers have employed the theory in their studies on a number of topics, including whether the United States should declare English as its official language (Lin & Salwen, 1997), the Persian Gulf war (Signorielli, Eveland, & McLeod, 1995), the O. J. Simpson criminal trial (Jeffres, Neuendorf, & Atkin, 1999), the popularity of radio stations (Wedel, 1994), affirmative action (Moy, Domke, & Stamm, 2001), and abortion (Salmon & Neuwirth, 1990).

Noelle-Neumann's theory has not avoided substantial criticism. Criticism has focused on the theory's principles and concepts. Charles Salmon and F. Gerald Kline (1985) feel that the Spiral of Silence fails to acknowledge a person's ego involvement in an issue. At times, people may be willing to speak because their ego is involved in the topic (for example, if a promotion at work depends on assertiveness). Carroll Glynn, Andrew Hayes, and James Shanahan (1997) raise the issue of various selectivity processes, such as cognitive dissonance, which we explored in Chapter 7. Individuals will avoid a topic that conflicts with their own views. Glynn and colleagues also note that there is little empirical support for the claim that people speak out only because they perceive support for their views. J. David Kennamer (1990) supports this criticism: "[I]t is hard to imagine either the pro-life or the pro-choice sides of the abortion issue giving up the fight because they perceive themselves to be in the minority" (p. 396).

Carroll Glynn and Jack McLeod (1985) note two additional shortcomings about the theory. First, they believe that the fear of isolation may not motivate people to express their opinions. They claim that Noelle-Neumann did not empirically test her assumption that fear of isolation prompts people to speak out. Second, they argue that Noelle-Neumann does not acknowledge the influence that people's communities and reference groups have on their opinions. They believe that she focuses too much on the media. Along with that concern, the fact that the development of the Spiral of Silence relies on the media in 1985 West Germany troubles Glynn and McLeod. They doubt whether the characteristics of the media then and there (ubiquitous, cumulative, and consonant) apply to the media in the United States today. During their examination of a U.S. presidential election, Glynn and McLeod discovered little support for media bias. They do not question the relatively intimate bond among media in Germany, but they do wonder whether the theory has limited cultural application in the United States.

Noelle-Neumann has responded to several of her critics, notably in defending her emphasis on the media. She remains convinced that the media is instrumental in public opinion. She writes that "by using words and arguments taken from the media to discuss a topic, people cause the point of view to be heard in public and give it visibility, thus creating a situation in which the danger of isolation is reduced" (Noelle-Neumann, 1985, p. 80). She continues by noting that not once did the spiral of silence process contradict the media's position on a topic (Noelle-Neumann, 1993). In terms of application across cultures, Noelle-Neumann (1993) agrees that any theory of public opinion must have cross-cultural applicability. However, she posits, it is important to note that most U.S. researchers desire a rational explanation for human behavior, but not all behavior can be explained sensibly. Yet, she does accept that the train test may be limited in cross-cultural adaptation. As a result, Noelle-Neumann (1993) updated the version to read:

Assume you are on a five-hour bus trip, and the bus makes a rest stop and everyone gets out for a long break. In a group of passengers, someone starts talking about whether we should support [insert topic] or not. Would you like to talk to this person, to get to know his or her point of view better, or would you prefer not to? (p. 217)

Of course, you may doubt whether simply changing a train test to a bus test broadens the cross-cultural application of the theory.

The Spiral of Silence will continue to generate discussion among media scholars. The theory has sustained considerable criticism, and with a central emphasis on political discussion, researchers will continue to assess the theory's vitality. We live in a political world, dominated by a bold Western media. Whether people openly express majority or minority viewpoints on an issue may not be directly proportional to the media's involvement on the issue, but it is clear that the public will come to rely on the media in the global society. The theory, therefore, may have lasting effects that have not been imagined.

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