Posted by: kararc | October 4, 2012

Maintaining the Dominant Ideology Through the Spiral of Silence

spiral of silence diagramAs I dug deeper into the discussion in chapter 13 of our text, I came across a fascinating communication theory from the late German pioneer of public opinion research, Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann. Noelle-Neumann’s best-known theory is the spiral of silence, her explanation for how public opinion is formed.

According to the theory, we are afraid of social isolation and this fear causes us to remain silent when we feel our views are in the minority. This silence is the centrifugal force that accelerates a spiral wherein the minority becomes more silent and the majority becomes more vocal.

To avoid vocalizing a potential minority opinion (and ultimately to avoid social isolation) we wait to speak up until we gauge the majority’s view on any given topic. And here’s where the media comes in: the mass media plays a huge role in telling us what the dominant opinion is.

We can, of course, break the spiral of silence by speaking up. Remember Hans Christian Anderson’s The Emperor’s New Clothes? Or Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr’s speech opposing the Vietnam War?

As I think about the spiral of silence and how it supports the dominant ideology, I wonder: what does it really take to engage in counter-hegemony? Is being a culture jammer in our era of rebellion and swift cultural change really counter-hegemony or does the cool factor render it part of the dominant ideology?


  1. I have to admit that reading your post and your questions made me think about what it really takes to engage in counter-hegemony in the 21st century. I started wondering how much of Noelle-Neumann’s spiral of silence still serves as an adequate theory to explain how public opinion is formed in our fast changing media environment. Doesn’t the Web 2.0 provide more channels and possibilities to express opinions that are not-compliant to the popular opinion?

    The increase of news consumption online and peer-to-peer communication via social networks, leads to a more fragmented society due to individualized news agenda. The variety of available reference groups online seems sheer endless for everyone and every opinion. Someone who doesn’t find support of his unpopular opinion could find support in a discussion forum.

    Assuming that Noelle-Neumann’s theory was based the creation of public opinion in a traditional media environment – does it still remain true in an increasing “virtual” world? Do we even have to distinguish between a virtual and real world?

  2. I definitely agree that, in the western world at least, we’re able to express more opinions faster than ever before. However, opinions counter to our own are also much easier to ignore than ever before. We can spend all day online reading and discussing news without once encountering something that goes against our ideology.

    Couple this with your thoughts about individualized news and groups available for every conceivable opinion, and suddenly we’re talking about a world where each of us is living in the ‘ideology-bubble’ of our choosing. Perhaps we aren’t as silent as we were before the internet, but instead we’re strategically silent. We speak loudly in the discussion forums and on the websites that support us, and ignore the ones that don’t.

    Which brings me right back around to the Spiral of Silence. Don’t we need to speak up in places or forums that we don’t agree with in order to truly break the silence?

  3. What an excellent addition to our reading. I am unfamiliar with Noelle-Neumann and her theory of the Spiral of Silence, however I concede it’s a good theory and I will continue to remember it. Surely we have all noted the reluctance of the majority to voice original or potentially unpopular public opinion.

    I can agree that the media act as the common purveyor of hegemony, however, I have to question whether the reluctance to oppose isn’t actually more the result of early childhood socialization during our educational process which emphasizes remaining seated and not speaking out from Kindergarten through 5th grade. Of course, for very practical reasons, a single teacher with about 20 to 30 young students must co-opt silence and compliance during class to allow the majority to learn.

    In addition to strict regimentation during class time, societies can have aphorisms which extoll conformity, such as: Silence is Golden. (Ancient Egypt) “The nail which sticks up will be hammered down.” (Japanese). “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.” (American, origin uncertain) “Silence is wisdom when speaking is folly” (proverb) And the list goes on.

    As a result, isn’t it easier to conform, and easier to follow than to lead?

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