Sociological Studies as a Reflection for Parliament, Market and Civic Society
The Riigikogu’s seven years of practice in ordering sociological and public opinion studies is quite unique among Europe’s parliaments in terms of content, related to parliament’s constitutional functions, as well as the procedure used to reach consensus in preparing the studies.
From 1996 to 2003, 47 complex public opinion studies and different qualitative studies related to trust in public institutions, legal system, state budget, public services, NGOs, values, europeanization, political reforms, media etc. have been conducted based on contemporary concepts such as legal state, civil society, participatory democracy, etc. Over 7 years, more than 70 different trend questions have been used, making it possible to analyse changes in public opinion, expectations, preferences and social problems. The general reports of studies are available as a parliamentary public service via the Riigikogu’s homepage; databases are available for academic use at the Estonian Social Science Data Archive.
The author proceeds from the understanding that in a democratic state the important decisions of public authority should strive to be in harmony with the opinions, socio-economic possibilities and justified expectations of the majority of the society. In sum, besides general elections, referendums and public opinion polls with sufficiently large sample there are not many other methods for finding out the opinions and preferences of the silent majority about the political decisions influencing the whole society.
The surveys, related to the parliamentary functions like representation of people, legislation and impact assessment, control of executive, legitimatisation of laws etc., reflect wider variety of opinions and interests in the society. Parliament has to find out if the people are ready for political reforms: if the public opinion or the opinion of target groups of draft acts is strongly supportive of one or another political alternative, it makes easier to achieve the political agreements.
The law can have no direct influence in the society by itself: the effectiveness and the impact of a law depends also on the extent of support the law finds in the cultural traditions of the society, in shared values and public opinion. In this context the sociological studies as an information channel between the legislator and the silent majority guarantees feedback for the political and legal sub-systems between general elections and, what’s more important, this information helps in striving for the harmony of the three validity requirements of laws (legal, social, ethical), keeping in mind that the parliament is the only institution that has the right to change the negotiated positions and social facts into legally constructed norms that apply to everybody who are in the sphere of influence of a concrete law.
The article’s first part covers the interdisciplinary puzzle of theoretical approaches; the second is an overview of the institutional framework, main topics and problems of the preparatory process, and in the last part the author, who has been the coordinator of this process at the Riigikogu for seven years, arrives at the experimental nature of politics, laws and studies. The article is a further revised version of the paper presented at the European Sociological Association’s 6th annual conference in Spain (2003), ‘Sociological and public opinion research as reflection for parliament and civil society’: www.um.es/ESA/papers/St9_61.pdf.