The term public sphere is the English translation of the German term Öffentlichkeit. This term's significance in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century stems initially from its use in Jürgen Habermas's Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit (The structural transformation of the public sphere) in 1962. In spite of its foreign origin, the term public sphere actually represented an attempt to more adequately articulate those aspects of Anglo-American liberal culture associated with the formation of public opinion and popular sovereignty. The term Öffentlichkeit, which literally translates as "public-ness," can be taken to communicate two interconnected sets of meaning, one set involving the notion of "the public" as an actual physical entity, and a second set involving the concept of "publicity" or "openness." (This dual aspect is also found in the Russian glasnost. ) Hence the term is meant to imply not merely the intellectual exchange present in the notion of a "marketplace of ideas" but also the embodied process of forming otherwise private people into a public via various means of communication. Yet the term connotes not simply the physically existing public but rather the radically democratic openness implicit in public discourse. The ambiguity inherent in the term public sphere enables it to encompass both the rationality implied by open discourse and the sovereignty associated with an actual public.
The public sphere is neither merely the public nor simply the conditions of equality and universal access that permit the free exchange of ideas; it also encompasses the actual process through which private individuals come together to form public opinion. The notion that individuals are "private" is meant to indicate that rank or status should have no standing in the formation of public opinion. What makes an opinion "public" is not merely the accident of its popularity but also its accessibility and ability to withstand public scrutiny. The process through which private individuals come together as a public in the generation of public opinion involves achieving a critical distance from rank, status, or mere popularity in the assessment of opinion—in practice oftentimes accomplished through the private consumption of commodities (pamphlets, books, or programs) produced for the public market.
Habermas's formulation of the concept of the public sphere was intended from the beginning to be controversial. The concept was conceived as a reproach to positivist social science and more specifically to the notion that scientific polling represented the last word in researching public opinion. Habermas sought through his conceptualization of the public sphere to reintroduce notions of reason and rational discourse into discussions of public opinion, in contrast to the pollster's practice of collecting unreflective responses. This approach has become an accepted criticism of public opinion polls, even while it has not appreciably lessened the reliance of marketing experts upon polls. This lack of impact can be attributed in part to a difference in aims between polling practitioners, who are simply looking for a current snapshot of public opinion, and social theorists, who seek to explain the differences between more or less legitimate examples of public opinion.
An important feature of Habermas's analysis was his claim that the public sphere did not represent a timeless aspect of society. Rather, the bourgeois public sphere had a history: it arose early in the eighteenth century and was subject to a "refeudalization" or transformation that commenced during the middle of the nineteenth century. The "liberal model" of the public sphere was to be sharply distinguished from the ancient publics of the Greek poleis, societies where the private realm was one of necessity and the public characterized by rhetorical competition for glory—not unlike an oral "Olympics" (Arendt). The feudal "representative public-ness" that preceded the liberal model was characterized by Habermas as a form of publicness that one encounters in a medieval court—publicness as a form of display, not as a subject of dispute. The "mediatized public" that followed the decline of the liberal model can likewise be understood as a form of mediated display, with the public as an audience reading, listening, watching—but in essence consuming—the mass media performance, whether it be in the form of print, radio, or television.
The ideals of equality, inclusiveness, and rationality that lay at the heart of the liberal model rested upon the cultivation of a critical subjectivity that occurred within the intimate sphere (Intimsphäre ) of the bourgeois conjugal family. The bourgeois family, which propagated an ideology of the family as a voluntary, loving community supportive of individual development, "raised bourgeois ideology above ideology itself" (Habermas, 1989, p. 48) by inculcating within its members the experience of humanity or "purely human" relations. The transference of the attitudes fostered within the private sphere to topics of public concern—first literary, then political—resulted in the rise of a critical public sphere. The subsequent collapse, beginning in the latter half of the nineteenth century, of the distinction between public and private—the "structural transformation" of Habermas's title—exposed the fictive unity of the experience of humanity central to bourgeois ideology, thereby undermining the critical function of the public sphere.
The notion of "collapse" is meant to indicate the intervention of the state into what, under the liberal model of society, were previously considered "private" matters, for example, with regard to economic regulation and social programs, as well as the adoption of quasi-public powers—through the consolidation of market power—by powerful trusts and corporations. Notions of public and private did not disappear, but they changed. They no longer denoted completely independent spheres, one—the public—of coercion, and the other—the private—of mutual exchange. The "collapse" is not meant to imply the complete dissolution of the concepts of public and private, but rather the blurring of previous boundaries as regards appropriate spheres of action, as manifest by the exercise of public power by private interests and concern over what were previously considered private economic circumstances on the part of the state. For example, the privacy of the family has become subject to regulation by child welfare services, and corporations have come to employ market power as a means of dictating public policy.
The German suffix lich is akin to the suffix "ly" in English insofar as it modifies the root word, rendering it an adjective (for example, brüderlich brotherly). In a similar manner, the German suffix keit that follows lich can be thought of as analogous to "ness" in English, transforming the adjective into a noun that signifies the quality manifest in the adjective. Brüderlichkeit translates as "brotherliness" or "brotherly feeling or sentiment." Another example is the triad Ehre, ehrlich, and Ehrlichkeit, which translate as "honor," "honest," ("honor-ly" being rather awkward) and "honesty." This parallels the changes found in offen, öffentlich, and Öffentlichkeit ("open," "public"—although one may discuss things "openly," the English adjective is typically rendered "public"—and "publicity"/"the public"). As in the previous cases, the German suffix keit transformed the adjective form into a noun, but a noun with a different meaning from the original root term (brotherliness vs. brother, honesty vs. honor, "publicness" vs. open). Unfortunately the English term publicity —which at first glance would seem the best noun form for translating "the quality of openness or being public"—is burdened by negative connotations through association with the advertising industry. The term public sphere avoids both the negativity of the term publicity and the narrow concreteness implied by "audience" (which in any case corresponds to Publikum ). By encompassing both the quality of "public-ness" ("publicity" in the positive sense) and "the public," the term public sphere also focuses attention on the nature and necessity of the relationship between the private consumption (of the audience) and the public market for production or performance (publicity). The existence of such a relationship is essential for the development of a critical public sphere.
The dependence of this model of the public sphere upon the development of bourgeois civil society and in particular the bourgeois family was controversial. Although Habermas was well aware of the ideological nature of the rhetoric concerning the bourgeois family, his explanation of how the false synthesis of the abstract rights of citoyen (the citizen) and the economic necessities of homme (man, or the economic individual) "transcended" the temporal circumstances of bourgeois society by means of the concept of humanity left many unconvinced. Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge made the questionable idealizations concerning the nature of the bourgeois public sphere—particularly with regard to class—the basis for their important contributions to the concept of the public sphere in their 1972 book Öffentlichkeit und Erfahrung (Public sphere and experience). Although Negt and Kluge essentially adopted many of the premises behind the bourgeois public sphere (for example with regard to origins, history, and gender), they did question the idealization of the bourgeois public sphere as the only public sphere. The term counter public (Gegenöffentlichkeit ) illustrated their claim that the public sphere as posited by the bourgeois model had always existed in a state of tension with those excluded from it. According to Negt and Kluge, these exclusions were rendered ideologically invisible by the very abstract principles of universality that previously had been idealized. Hence the growth of exclusions from public debate that Habermas depicted in the "refeudalization" of the bourgeois public sphere did not mark a departure from the underlying principles but rather an extension of their application. Rather than a singular, unified public sphere, there had always existed a variety of (counter) public spheres, each rooted in the experiences that as a whole make up the "context of living" (Lebenszusammenhang ) of various individuals.
Feminist scholars also found the bourgeois model's dependence upon a rigid division between public and private questionable. They held that the bourgeois model uncritically reproduced the very same emphasis upon the "intimate sphere as schoolhouse" that had been placed upon it during the eighteenth century by those who sought to disseminate an ideal of femininity that restricted women's activities to the rearing of male citizens, thereby gendering the public as "masculine" and the private as "feminine." According to this reading, the biases exhibited by the tendency of the literary sphere to be populated by women and the political sphere by men were not simply an accidental aspect of the bourgeois public sphere—such biases were fundamental elements in its construction and maintenance. The central role gender biases played in the maintenance of the bourgeois "masculinist" public sphere was further confirmed by the connection between its collapse and the collapse of the public-private distinction—a circumstance that Habermas would later term the "colonization of the life-world." Observations such as these on the central role played by exclusions in the construction of the bourgeois public sphere have led feminist scholars such as Nancy Fraser to reject other aspects of the bourgeois public sphere: the notion that economic differences can ever be successfully bracketed; the assumption that the existence of multiple public spheres is regressive; the stricture that public discussions exclude expression of "private" interests; and the belief that a democratic public sphere requires a strict demarcation between civil society (weak publics) and public aspects of the state (strong publics).
Habermas has not been deaf to criticism and has creatively incorporated much of it into his later formulations concerning the public sphere. His work on universal pragmatics and discourse ethics during the late 1960s and 1970s prepared the ground for a less parochial model of the public sphere. Although never explicitly disavowed, the rather narrow foundations of bourgeois privacy were supplanted by the expansive, quasi-transcendental philosophical foundation of an always-already-presupposed ideal speech situation manifest within the everyday conversations that make up the lifeworld (Lebenswelt ). This "conversational model" of public spheres, although subject to cooptation, was not extinguished with the passing of its bourgeois incarnation, but rather continued to reside in the communicative interstices of modern civil society. This conversational model was further modified through the attempt to integrate electronic media into the concept of the public sphere in a less negative, more productive fashion. Whereas previously the mass media was considered merely a "pseudo-public," in later work the concept of the public sphere was acknowledged to include "abstract publics" composed of individuals only brought together by means of the mass media. However, in seeking to project a more sociologically up-to-date depiction of the public sphere that fully incorporates electronic media, Habermas left himself open to accusations of alternately devaluing the normative prescriptions previously associated with the concept of the public sphere—in effect palming them off to civil society—or, in reaffirming the normative impulses that lay behind the initial formulation of the public sphere, rendering incoherent the description of the mass media as part of the public sphere.
These conceptual difficulties stem from the fact that the public sphere was initially conceived as an outgrowth of bourgeois civil society. The norms associated with the bourgeois public sphere or conversational public spheres were assumed to result from the conversations conducted within civil society. The normative status of such conversations derived from either the ideal of humanity, in the case of the bourgeois public sphere, or the ideal speech situation, in the case of conversational public spheres. In both cases, however, mass media were presumed to subvert the normative influence of such ideals by circumventing the medium of conversations in civil society through which such norms are presumed to be inculcated. As long as the conversational medium of civil society is considered the key factor in fostering the norms of the public sphere, the attempt to provide a sociologically accurate description of the public sphere that includes the mass media risks incoherence. One must either depict the public sphere as void of normative resources—contradicting thirty years of research on the subject—or exclude the mass media from the public sphere by definition. It can be argued that there are examples of both in Habermas's Between Facts and Norms (1996).
The close link that is often presumed to exist between the public sphere and civil society lies at the root of the last controversy to be explored. Many social scientists and historians have found the concept of the public sphere to be useful and have sought to adapt it to their chosen field of study. Yet Habermas has argued that the public sphere has a specific historical origin and hence cannot be applied to earlier eras without doing violence to the very concept of the public sphere. The reasoning behind this position is fairly straightforward: if the public sphere represents the conversational matrix of (at least initially) bourgeois civil society, how could the public sphere possibly antedate civil society? A public sphere that predated civil society would by necessity differ conceptually from either the bourgeois or conversational models, both of which depend upon the conversations of civil society to inculcate the proper communicative ethics. Yet it is precisely this position that some have embraced: that the public sphere needs to be reconceptualized separately from civil society, in part in order to adequately account for prior developments in communications and the growth of the marketplace for textual commodities. A "mediated" concept of the public sphere would stress how mediated communications are capable of subverting hierarchy—thereby fostering autonomy of judgment and freedom of conscience—and emphasize the historical importance of literacy, commercial activity involving textual commodities, technological innovation, and the growth of textual (or imagined) communities.
The concept of the public sphere has had an important and lasting influence in virtually every social scientific field, as a brief perusal of the affiliations of the various contributors to Craig Calhoun's Habermas and the Public Sphere (1992) amply demonstrates. However, given the centrality of public opinion and the process of its formation to the legitimacy of modern democratic forms of government, the concept is most influential for debates involving the intersection of modern communications, opinion formation, and democracy. Such debates range over a wide variety of topics. Some fields are dominated by the conversational model; these include theoretical explorations of the concept of civil society (Cohen and Arato) and arguments concerning the value and feasibility of deliberative forms of democracy (Bohman and Rehg). Other fields of inquiry, such as historical examinations of the modern origins of the democratic ethos (Zaret), are more conducive to a mediated concept. Some have sought to apply the concept of the public sphere to different societies and social conditions—for example, in analyses of the public sphere in Chinese history—whereas others have sought to use the concept as an aid in assessing the future impact of the Internet. Every application of the concept of the public sphere involves a tension between sociological description and normative prescription. This productive tension—which spans the gap between actual and potential—is what has rendered the concept so fruitful and useful, and what promises that the concept will continue to provoke both interest and insight for many years to come.
See also Civil Society ; Equality ; Media, History of ; Privacy .
Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958.
Bohman, James, and William Rehg, eds. Deliberative Democracy: Essays on Reason and Politics. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1997.
Calhoun, Craig, ed. Habermas and the Public Sphere. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1992.
Cohen, Jean L., and Andrew Arato. Civil Society and Political Theory. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1992.
Eisenstein, Elizabeth L. The Printing Press As an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformations in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1979.
Habermas, Jürgen. Between Facts and Norms. Translated by William Rehg. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1996.
——. "The Public Sphere: An Encyclopedia Article." Translated by Sara Lennox and Frank Lennox. New German Critique 1, no. 3 (fall 1974): 49–55.
——. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Translated by Thomas Burger. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1989.
——. The Theory of Communicative Action: Lifeworld and System. Translated by Thomas McCarthy. 2 vols. Boston: Beacon, 1987.
Halasz, Alexandra. The Marketplace of Print: Pamphlets and the Public Sphere in Early Modern England. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Landes, Joan B. Women and the Public Sphere in the Age of the French Revolution. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1988.
Negt, Oskar, and Alexander Kluge. The Public Sphere and Experience: Toward an Analysis of the Bourgeois and Proletarian Public Spheres. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.
Zaret, David. Origins of Democratic Culture: Printing, Petitions, and the Public Sphere in Early-Modern England. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000.
Thomas F. Murphy III
"Public Sphere." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 18, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/public-sphere
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Discourse on the public sphere derives from the work of the German social theorist Jürgen Habermas, particularly with his first major work, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, which first appeared in Germany in 1962, and in what some consider to be his magnum opus, The Theory of Communicative Action (1981). In these and other works, Habermas has been concerned with explicating the historical and social structural factors that have served to inhibit or advance democracy. Given the centrality of free and open dialogue for the functioning of democracy, of particular concern to Habermas is identifying where such discussions take place and under what conditions. His guiding question has been: Where is the space in which democracy is nurtured? Habermas refers to this space as the public sphere, a term related to civil society, which refers to a realm of social life distinct from both the state and the market, where participation in public life occurs with a spirit of cooperation and a norm of reciprocity. Seen in this light, Habermas construes the public sphere as a space within civil society. By claiming that a prerequisite of a democratic polity is an autonomous public sphere, Habermas can be seen as building on the work of Max Weber (1864–1920) and Seymour Martin Lipset (1922–2006) in attempting to identify the most important social structural conditions underpinning democratic societies.
What Habermas refers to as the “bourgeois public sphere” came into its own in the nineteenth century, most fully in Britain, as a result of the triumph of capitalism and the establishment of a laissez-faire state. In contrast to the feudal era, in which the economy and polity were intimately linked, in the earliest phase of the capitalist industrial era this linkage was uncoupled. The public sphere can be visualized as being carved out between the economy and the state, being separate and distinct from them. It is an arena that is accessible to all citizens on the basis of equality and thus is not dominated or controlled by powerful economic actors or by state officials. His perspective on this sphere has been depicted as a theater where political discourse occurs.
The public sphere requires the existence of independent voluntary associations of citizens and an institutionalized apparatus that permits the unrestricted dissemination of information and ideas. Thus the panoply of organizations—ranging from local parent-teacher associations and neighborhood clubs to labor unions, human rights organizations, environmental organizations, and so on—is part and parcel of this arena. In addition, so are media committed to ensuring that citizens are informed about the vital issues of the day and to providing outlets for articulating an array of stances on issues and forums for debate and dissent.
Critics of Habermas contend that he tends to romanticize the public sphere during its earlier years, confusing his ideal vision about how it should have functioned with the reality of the historical situation, which involved from its inception persistent intrusions of powerful economic interests and the repressive tactics of the state. The result was that the public sphere never managed to be as autonomous as he seems to think. This may be a somewhat unfair characterization of Habermas’s position because he provides ample evidence of being aware of the limitations of actual existing public spheres in the past. He does think, however, that public spheres in the past exhibited greater autonomy than their contemporary versions.
At the same time Habermas leaves himself open to charges of utopian thinking, especially when he develops the ideal of a state of undistorted communication, free from coercion and restraint. In his view, democratic decisions arise dialogically. In an ideal speech situation, people talk to others to come to an understanding of which ideas and values are best, not to manipulate others to get one’s way. In other words, he assumes a willingness on the part of citizens to freely embrace the better argument. There are examples of situations in which this ideal seems to have been more or less realized, such as old New England town meetings and Quaker meetings. The participants in these examples can be fairly depicted as being cooperative, tolerant, critical, self-reflective, and rational, whereas the differences among them in terms of both economic status and levels of human capital are not great.
Two other criticisms have been leveled at Habermas’s portrait of the public sphere. First, some feminists contend that he is insufficiently attentive to the relationship between the private and public spheres and its implication for gender relations. Second, he has been accused of operating with an overly rationalistic and overly civilized view of human nature.
Habermas has expressed concern that the public sphere in what he describes as “late capitalism” is threatened by what he calls “refeudalization.” What he refers to is the tendency to link or integrate the economy and the polity in a way quite at odds with their separation in the earlier period of capitalist development. Given his focus on communication, it is not surprising that he is particularly apprehensive about the concentration of media power in the hands of political and economic elites. Large media conglomerates have arisen to choke dissident voices out of the market, and these corporations, far from being independent of political power, serve as apologists for it. The result is that genuine public debate has given way to propaganda and increasingly sophisticated public relations.
Although the portrait he paints might lead to despair regarding the future of democracy, Habermas presents a cautious optimism. In particular he sees in the new social movements—environmental, antinuclear, peace, feminist, and so forth—potential for change. These movements have abandoned any belief in the possibility of revolutionary change, opting instead for radical reforms and a commitment to nonviolent change. Underlying his tempered hope for the future is a particular understanding of human nature. It presupposes that people are by nature political and thus concerned about and willing to participate in issues related to the well-being of society as a whole.
SEE ALSO Associations, Voluntary; Civil Society; Feminism; Government; Habermas, Jürgen; Persuasion; Public Sector; Rationality; Utopianism; Volunteerism; Weber, Max
Calhoun, Craig, ed. 1992. Habermas and the Public Sphere. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Habermas, Jürgen.  1989. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Trans. Thomas Burger. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Habermas, Jürgen. 1979. Communication and the Evolution of Society. Trans. Thomas McCarthy. Boston: Beacon.
Habermas, Jürgen.  1984–1987. The Theory of Communicative Action. 2 vols. Trans. Thomas McCarthy. Boston: Beacon.
Habermas, Jürgen. 1996. Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy. Trans. William Rehg. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Zaret, David. 2000. Origins of Democratic Culture: Printing, Petitions, and the Public Sphere in Early-Modern England. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
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public sphere versus private sphere distinction
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