The power of polls

New book looks at the role of polls in guiding policy

- July 12, 2007

Peter Butler
Peter Butler has written the book, Polling and Public Opinion. (Abriel photo).

Peter Butler, a professor in the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology at Dalhousie University, understands the persuasive power of public opinion polls in a democratic society. His newly released book, Polling and Public Opinion: A Canadian Perspective, looks at the role Canadians play in guiding public policy and influencing change in our society.

"There has not been a systematic consideration of public opinion in Canada since Claire Hoy wrote Margin of Error in the late 1980s," says Dr. Peter Butler. "Moreover, while there are lots of books about public opinion there are not many which have a Canadian perspective. Most American books about public opinion do not mention Canadian opinions whatsoever."

Canadians' attitudes can guide change in our governments. Dr. Butler's book illustrates how controversial issues such as free trade, health care, same-sex marriage and national security have been influenced by public opinion polls. They also drive media activity, direct advertising and marketing patterns, and influence government agendas and their policy decisions.

"In public opinion terms, the anxieties generated by habitual reporting about potential terrorist threats and our national security, may challenge Canadian values regarding accommodation and tolerance of others. Indeed, we could find ourselves moving away from a consensus on the value of diversity in this country," says Butler.

Polling and Public Opinion: A Canadian Perspective offers an in-depth view of the most important methods that influences politicians and governments, gauging the public will of Canadians.

One of the hottest topics being debated in Nova Scotia today is the Atlantic Accord. 

"The public's reaction to the Atlantic Accord has been something approaching religious fervor," says Dr. Butler. " A perception of injustice, which is fueling both sides of the debate, has elements of moral panic; and it is dubious that many of those expressing opinions really understand the terms of the agreement at all."


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