Personal Discussions Important in Setting Public Agenda

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Conversations we have within our own social groups may be very influential, some new political science shows.

Research on “agenda setting” usually looks at how media elites and political campaigns shape our opinions about what’s important. In other words, it shows how the public agenda gets set. But new research by Bas van Doorn, a professor at the College of Wooster, shows there’s another piece to that pie.

“Conventionally, agenda setting is understood as a media effect,” said Van Doorn. “It’s usually studied by measuring what the media is reporting on at a particular time and then comparing it to what the public’s priorities are right afterward. But here I decided to ask similar questions about people’s interpersonal, social networks.”

Agenda setting research shows that the media doesn’t really give a direct, hypodermic injection of a message into a passively accepting public. Rather, it throws a spotlight on which issues are supposed to be worthy of attention, to the exclusion of other issues.

The same thing is true, it seems, of our personal discussions: They don’t necessarily tell us what to think, but they tell us what things to think about.

"Conversation at the Regulars' Table" by Benjamin Vautier.

“Conversation at the Regulars’ Table” by Benjamin Vautier.

Van Doorn analyzed different networks, some with a lot of self-identified Democrats and others with self-identified Republicans.

“People who are in networks that are dominated by Republicans, for example, are more likely to prioritize or think about an issue owned by Republicans, regardless of their own position on it,” he said. “And whether they are a Republican or not.

Because the two parties tend to “own” different policy issues – the Republicans have defense, crime and morality, Democrats have racial issues and labor, for example – van Doorn believed that people in a more partisan network would have more discussions about certain types of issues.

“Most people, ideally, would like to simply discuss politics with people who are like them, who agree with them, but in reality that is hard,” van Doorn said. “People happen to encounter others along the way who disagree with them and they end up talking politics. The breakdown that I found in the paper, was that one third of people in discussion networks only talk to people who sympathize with the same party. One third are in mixed networks. And about one third are in networks that wholly consist of partisans of the opposite party.”

The importance of networks seemed to be more influential for Republicans, van Doorn said.

Like political elites in media, opinion leaders play a very important role in our social groups.

“People who are opinion leaders tend to be regular people who are passionate about politics, who follow political news more avidly – political junkies in a sense,” van Doorn said. “They often have strong, well-developed, crystallized opinions.”

The study, “What is Important? The Impact of Interpersonal Political Discussion on Public Agendas,” was published in the journal Social Science Quarterly.

Featured Image: German politicians discuss issues in Mettingen, Germany. Credit: J.-H. Janßen.