Introduction for Special Section: Attitudes: Ontology, Methodology, Impact

by Mark Elliot, David Voas and Alison Park
University of Manchester; University of Essex; NATCEN

Sociological Research Online, 19 (1) 11

Received: 31 Jan 2014     Accepted: 17 Feb 2014    Published: 28 Feb 2014

Keywords: Attitude Theory, Attitude Measurement


1.1 To introduce the special section we offer some reflections on the history of the attitude and its role within the social sciences and sociology in particular. Our central point is that the concept is pervasive in social science, and yet for a disciplinary environment where reflective criticism is the norm and where constructs are constantly questioned, the attitude has had a remarkably easy ride. Part of the issue here is that the attitude was largely developed within psychology and in a sense that discipline has done its work. It is time that the concept was subjected to sociological scrutiny: for sociology to claim it, critique it, develop it.

1.2 The attitude as a social construct emerged out of mentalistic psychology in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Allport (1954) observes that Spencer (1862) was amongst the first to use the term in his work First Principles where he refers to 'attitude of mind'. The term has been used within a variety of psychological frameworks with some such as Jung (1921) tying it to personality theory and others such as Allport (1934) constructing it as a primary but more specialised mental unit with a specific external focus. An early distinction, probably attributable to the sociologist Ellsworth Faris (1925), was between the perceptual and behavioural conceptualisations (or perhaps aspects) of the attitude. The former constructs the attitude as a perceptual filter which organises an agent's experience and the latter as an action schema which organises the organism's behaviour. Although most scholars did not see this distinction as functional, it was an early pointer to an ontological and methodological issue that still remains: the apparent disjunction between attitudes (as we measure them) and behaviour (as we observe it). Notwithstanding this conundrum, it is fair to summarise this early theorising as the view of the attitude as an encapsulation of the intentional relationship between a (human) agent and its environment.

1.3 The blossoming of cognitive social psychology between the 1940s and the 1970s, particularly in the US, brought the attitude to the forefront of psychology as a social science. Numerous secondary phenomena (such as cognitive dissonance, group polarisation, intergroup behaviour, consistency theory, interpersonal attraction, prejudice and attribution theory)[1] were all grounded in some way in the attitude as a construct.

1.4 In parallel with this manifestation was the explosion of the social survey as mechanism for social measurement. Although these have existed since the work of Booth[2] and Rowntree[3], a combination of: developments in social statistics, the founding of data archives and the birth of the digital computer, meant that the survey instrument has become a central part of academic social sciences as well as governmental policy making. With notable exceptions (one example being the British Election Survey series), these early surveys tended to focus on collecting information about respondents' experiences or circumstances, with little attention being paid to finding out about their attitudes or values. Indeed, Roger Jowell, in his introduction to the first British Social Attitudes survey (carried out in 1983) remarked 'Public attitudes are as much a part of social reality as are behaviour patterns, social conditions or demographic characteristics, but their measurement has never been accorded the same priority' (Jowell and Airey 1984). Thirty years on, many modern day social surveys do include a significant tranche of questions canvassing the respondent's attitudes. As well as general attitude surveys (such as the British Social Attitudes Survey and the Opinions and Lifestyles Survey) and specialised attitude instruments (such as the Survey of Public Attitudes and Behaviours towards the Environment or the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles), attitudinal modules and items appear in surveys as diverse as the Offenders Crime and Justice Survey, the European Values Survey, the US General Social Survey and indeed all of the British cohort studies.

1.5 In parallel with these developments during the 1980s and onwards an intellectual shift began to occur within psychology. It had always sat - a little uncomfortably - between the sciences and humanities, but around this time its relationship with non-social science disciplines, most notably neurology and computer science, strengthened markedly. This was in part driven by the very same technological advances that drove the mushrooming of social surveys. As a consequence, the pure social psychological scholarship which had driven much of the theoretical and methodological work on attitudes became less prevalent and it would not be unreasonable to say that primary ontological and methodological work on attitudes became much thinner at this point. So for the past thirty years we have seen a large scale increase in the application of the concept of the attitude within the social sciences with very little work on the corresponding theory and methodology. There are some notable exceptions to this trend: the excellent work on satisficing by Jon Krosnick and colleagues (e.g. Krosnick 1992, 1996, 2002) and the important distinction between implicit and explicit attitudes (e.g. Greenwald & Banaji 1995; Gawronski & Bodenhausen 2006) being obvious examples. More recently there has been some interesting work integrating qualitative data into the attitudinal framework (e.g . Mills et al. 2005; Spurles and Babineau 2011). Nevertheless, the pace of development has been slow and perhaps more importantly, the practice of gathering and analysing attitudinal data in the rest of the social sciences has in many cases not progressed from the use of attitudinal scales that were invented in the 1930s (e.g. Likert 1932).

1.6 So we (the social sciences outside of psychology) are in an uncomfortable position. We are using a construct - the attitude - which we have essentially imported from psychology, arguably somewhat uncritically[4]. Given the raging debates that can often occur within our disciplines around key theoretical and methodological constructs, this is an odd state of affairs indeed.

1.7 Hence, the major driver for us in producing this special section is our view that the social sciences in general and particularly sociology should now claim this construct as its own. We should critique it, develop it, test it: progressing theory as to its ontological status and the methodology with which to capture and analyse it, and assess the impact that it has (at both micro and macro levels). The central scholarly enquiry here is: what is the role of the attitude in social science? This enquiry has numerous more specific spin-offs: How important is the attitude for policy and decision making? How central is it to the social science collective and to our individual disciplines and fields? What type of entity is it? Is an attitude an expression of agency or merely a third party description of (self)-observed consistencies?

1.8 One might observe that these types of enquiry are inherently sociological and perhaps the flip side of this is that many sociological enquiries are inherently attitudinal. Core fields of sociological enquiry - stratification, gender, social class, social movements and culture - all do seem to contain implicit attitudinal elements. Several of the papers in this special section consider this relationship explicitly. First off, Voas calls for a more sociological perspective on attitudes, moving beyond 'the individual likes and dislikes described by psychologists'. A key point here is the distinction between 'what I like' and 'what people ought to do'. His treatment of trust and tolerance in this framework demonstrates the value of constructing our theory of (social) attitudes as primarily social rather than primarily psychological. Watt and Elliot tackle this relationship from the other direction, speculating on (and then testing) the notion that social theories might be representable as attitudinal types.

1.9 A key theoretical point in the attitudes literature is the relationship between attitudes and other constructs. Several of the papers reflect on this issue. Voas tries to make clear the distinction between attitudes and other social psychological constructs (values, beliefs, feelings and behaviour). Watt and Elliot make an essentially methodological case for disconnecting the attitude from actual behaviour, preferring the term imagined behaviour. Kulnin and Seymer provide evidence on how what is articulated by the political elite moderates the relationship between values and attitudes. Paterson views social attitudes as mediating constructs between education and social participation.

1.10 Methodologically, all of the papers use, at least in part, standard social survey data. However for Chattoe-Brown these data are simply a way of improving the performance of agent based models of attitude dynamics, whilst for Devine and Robinson as well as Voas they are primarily the objects of study rather than analytical media.

1.11 In one form or another all papers consider the question of impact - demonstrating the relevance of attitudes to important social questions. However, the Devine and Robinson paper takes this issue as central theme. In essence their case is that attitudinal data are an important resource for modern democracies both as a driver for social policy and as a checking gauge for the politically active.

1.12 To conclude, the attitude has de facto a long history within the social sciences, but as Voas states in his article 'The sociology of attitudes is both well established and surprisingly underdeveloped.' This state of affairs seems undesirable both for the study of attitudes and for the social science disciplines that engage with the concept. The articles here provide a selection of perspectives on how a new social science of attitudes might be taken forward.


The authors wish to thank Rebecca Rhead and Laura Watt for their comments on an earlier draft of this paper.


1 For an excellent discussion of all of these topics see Aronson (2011).

2Booth's original work was published in seventeen volumes over the turn of the 19th Century. It has been subsequently summarized, reproduced and interpreted on many occasions. See O'Day and Englander (1993).

3Poverty: A Study of Town Life by Benjamin S. Rowntree (1922).

4Again there are some notable exceptions here. Jon Krosnick for example would probably regard himself as a political scientist not a psychologist and certainly would not accept the label 'uncritical'. It would also be untrue to say that sociology has not engaged with the attitude at all. Cohen (1966) for example made a clear case for the mutual relevance of sociological enquiry and attitude theory.


ALLPORT, A. (1954) 'Attitudes in the History of Social Psychology', in Warren, N. and Jahoda, M. Attitudes. London, Penguin, p. 19 - 25.

ARONSON, E. (2011) The Social Animal (11th ed.) New York: Worth/Freeman

COHEN, P. (1966) 'Social Attitudes and Sociological Enquiry'. The British Journal of Sociology, 17 (4) p. 341-352. [doi://]

FARIS, E. (1925) 'The Concept of Social Attitudes' Journal of Applied Sociology, 9 p. 404 - 409.

GAWRONSKI, B., & Bodenhausen, G. V. (2006). Associative and propositional processes in evaluation: An integrative review of implicit and explicit attitude change. Psychological Bulletin, 132, p. 692 - 731. [doi://]

GREENWALD, A.G., & Banaji, M.R. (1995). Implicit social cognition: Attitudes, self-esteem, and stereotypes. Psychological Review, 102(1), p. 4 - 27. [doi://]

JUNG, C.G. (1921). Psychological Types, Collected Works, Volume 6, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press (1971).

JOWELL, R. and AIREY, C. (Eds) (1984). British Social Attitudes: the 1984 Report. Gower: Aldershot.

KROSNICK, J. (1991). "Response Strategies for coping with the cognitive demands of attitude measures in surveys". Applied Cognitive Psychology, 5 (3) p. 213 - 236. [doi://]

KROSNICK, J. ,?Narayan, S., and Smith, W. R. (1996). Satisficing in Surveys: Initial Evidence. New Directions for Program Evaluation, 70 p. 29 - 44. [doi://]

KROSNICK, J. ?Holbrook, A. L, Berent, M. K., Carson, R. T, Hanemann W. M., Kopp, R. J., Mitchell, R. C., Presser, S., Ruud, P. A., Smith, V. K., Moody, W. R., Green, M. C., and Conaway, M. (2002). The Impact of "No Opinion" Response Options on Data Quality: Non?Attitude Reduction or an Invitation to Satisfice? Public Opinion Quarterly, 66 p. 371 - 403. [doi://]

LIKERT, R (1932). "A Technique for the Measurement of Attitudes". Archives of Psychology 140 p. 1 - 55.

MILLS, E. Jadad, A. R. Ross,C. Wilson,K. (2005) Systematic review of qualitative studies exploring parental beliefs and attitudes toward childhood vaccination identifies common barriers to vaccination Journal of Clinical Epidemiology 58(11) p. 1081 - 1088. [doi://]

O'DAY, R. and Englander, D. (1993). Mr Charles Booth's inquiry: Life and labour of the people in London reconsidered. London; Hambledon.

SPENCER (1862) First Principles Appleton cited in Allport (1954)

SPURLES, P. K. and Babineau, J (2011) A Qualitative Study of Attitudes Toward Public Breastfeeding Among Young Canadian Men and Women Journal of Human Lactation, 27(2) p. 131-137.

UniS: University of Surrey logo University of Stirling logo British Sociological Association logo Sage Publications logo Electronic Libraries Programme logo Epress logo