6.1: Habermas and the “Public Sphere”

Jürgen Habermas first articulated his idea of a “public sphere” (German: öffentlichkeit) in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962, translated to English in 1989). Describing the öffentlichkeit as “a realm of our social life in which something approaching public opinion can be formed,” and into which “[a]ccess is guaranteed to all citizens,” Habermas established a conceptual ideal space where all citizens would be able to gather and discuss matters of common interest in an “unrestricted fashion” (Habermas, 1974, p. 49). While theoretically innocuous, such a space has never existed in practice because a truly equitable society has not yet been established.

To understand the utility of the Habermasian public sphere model, as well as the common critiques against it, a general understanding of how the model works is helpful. The public sphere is seen as a domain of social life where public opinion can be formed, and it is constituted in every conversation in which individuals come together to form a public. (Habermas, 1991, 398). Habermas saw several necessary conditions for the public sphere to function in a way that meaningfully serves a wide section of a population. First, it needs to be open to all citizens, who assemble freely to express their opinions in public discussions. In this realm they are not acting as or on behalf of a business or any private interests, but rather as an individual who is dealing with common matters of general interest.

Because potential topics of discussion are numerous, the public sphere may be divided into smaller and more cohesive conversations which focus on specific issues. A political public sphere holds public discourse about topics connected to governing and political practice. For example, an environmental or “green” public sphere offers space for citizens to discuss the interests of a range of stakeholders – from activists and experts to corporate interests and elected officials – as individuals. In this space they would be able to share their concerns about environmental issues and to express demands about the crafting or enforcement of relevant regulations (Pezzullo & Cox, 2018). This exemplifies Habermas’s second condition for a functional public sphere: as a realm in which public opinion is formed, it mediates between the state and society.

The Habermasian model of a public sphere holds a normative claim. That is, he describes a space which can only exist in an ideal democratic state, where equal participation and consideration are available to everyone. This condition is a difficult one to fill for many reasons, but primarily because civil rights and political representation have not yet been guaranteed to all citizens in any democracy (i.e. regardless of gender, sexual orientation, ability, race or ethnicity, economic class, education, etc.). Therefore, critics of Habermas’s model have offered several alternatives. The most well-known of these was articulated by feminist scholar Nancy Fraser, who pointed out that it is often difficult – if not impossible – to separate matters of public and private concern, especially for historically marginalized groups. She suggested that such groups in practice formed their own spaces, which she called subaltern counter publics (Fraser, 1992).

Whether an idealized public sphere is possible – or even desirable – has become a rather moot point as nations and populations grew too large for face-to-face communication. Certainly there is utility in single-issue publics and in counter publics, but interpersonal conversations about “matters of common interest” are no longer sufficient to transmit the concerns of citizens directly to their elected officials. Over time, we in some ways shifted our understanding about political discourse to include mass media (specifically news media, or “the press”). But how does the press fit into American democracy, and how should we expect media to serve us as citizens?


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Media & Society: Critical Approaches Copyright © by Randy Nichols; Alexandra Nutter; and Ellen Moore is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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