Competing conceptions of public opinion in Qatar

By Russell Lucas
Submitted to Session P4850 (Arab public opinion research: Challenges and prospects, 2017 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
Arab States; Arabian Peninsula; Qatar;
Cultural Studies; Democratization; Theory;
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
Many recent discussions of public opinion in the Middle East debate the existence and or power of the ‘Arab Street.’ Increasing numbers of studies report from the results of surveys from the region on a variety of topics. Often lost in these discussions, however, is how people in the region actually conceptualize the notion of public opinion.

Most Western definitions of public opinion focus on its aggregate nature that is best accessed by survey research. This conception, however, has been challenged from a number of perspectives. Some would see that social pressures create a spiral of silence to limit public expressions of opinions outside the mainstream majority. Others would argue that opinion is led by different active social groupings. This clash of pluralist ideas via contentious politics results in the formation of public attitudes. Other scholars focus not on public opinion but rather on the public sphere of discourse and dialogue through media studies. This notion of discourse is extended by some scholars to focus not on the attitudes of the public but how leaders use the rhetoric of ‘the public’ to justify their actions. Finally, some scholars would argue that public opinion simply does not exist outside the frameworks used to measure it.

Studies of public opinion in the Middle East aimed at audiences in the region as well as those in the West have reflected this diversity of conceptualization of public opinion. In addition the study of public opinion and survey research are both challenged as being inappropriate the region. Be it for their transplanting of Western cultural assumptions into a foreign environment, as neo-colonial impositions, or as irrelevant non-attitudes warped by authoritarian states and societies.

This study investigates how these different theoretical notions of public opinion find resonance among a Middle Eastern public. This paper analyzes the preliminary results from a new survey of respondents in Qatar on attitudes towards survey research and definitions of public opinion. This study is the first systematic investigation of participation in, and attitudes toward, survey research in Qatar. It gathers reliable and previously-unavailable data on the extent of survey usage in the country, as well as gauge the impact of social scientific research in a cultural context far removed from its Western origins. In so doing, it contributes to scholarly debates surrounding the origins of survey attitudes and public opinion formation.