Public Sphere.

Jurgen Habermas

Jürgen Habermas was born June 18, 1929 and is a German sociologist, geographer and philosopher in the tradition of critical theory and pragmatism. He is perhaps best known for his theory on the concepts of ‘communicative rationality’ and the ‘public sphere’. His work focuses on the foundations of social theory and epistemology, the analysis of advanced capitalistic societies and democracy, the rule of law in a critical social-evolutionary context, and contemporary politics, particularly German politics. Habermas’s theoretical system is devoted to revealing the possibility of reason, emancipation, and rational-critical communication latent in modern institutions and in the human capacity to deliberate and pursue rational interests. Habermas is known for his work on the concept of modernity, particularly with respect to the discussions of “rationalization” originally set forth by Max Weber. While influenced by American pragmatism, action theory, and even poststructuralism, many of the central tenets of Habermas’ thought remain broadly Marxist in nature. Global polls identified him as one of the leading intellectuals of the present.

The public sphere is a realm in which public opinion can be formed. Access is guaranteed to all and examples of this occur wherever two or more people assemble to form a public body. Citizens behave as a public body when they confer in an unrestricted fashion with the guarantee of freedom of assembly and association and the freedom of expression about matters of general interest. Today newspapers and magazines, radio and television are the media of the public sphere. The public sphere has the freedoms fought for in the past and since that time has made democracy possible.

There is no evidence that European society possessed a public sphere as a unique realm until after the late Middle Ages. Feudal lords represented themselves as agents of higher powers. The feudal authorities (church, prince, and nobility) started to disintegrate by the end of the 18th century and a division of public and private spheres. The church (since the reformation) became a separate entity to either public or private spheres. Most contemporary conceptualizations of the public sphere are based on the ideas expressed in Jürgen Habermas’ book The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere – An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society.

The German term Öffentlichkeit (Public Sphere) encompasses a variety of meanings and it implies a spatial concept, the social sites or arenas where meanings are articulated, distributed, and negotiated, as well as the collective body constituted by, and in this process, “the public.” The work is still considered the foundation of contemporary public sphere theories, and most theorists cite it when discussing their own theories.

The bourgeois public sphere may be conceived above all as the sphere of private people come together as a public; they soon claimed the public sphere regulated from above against the public authorities themselves, to engage them in a debate over the general rules governing relations in the basically privatized but publicly relevant sphere of commodity exchange and social labor. Through this work, he gave a historical-sociological account of the creation, brief flourishing, and demise of a “bourgeois” public sphere based on rational-critical debate and discussion. Habermas stipulates that, due to specific historical circumstances, a new civic society emerged in the eighteenth century.

Driven by a need for open commercial arenas where news and matters of common concern could be freely exchanged and discussed – accompanied by growing rates of literacy, accessibility to literature, and a new kind of critical journalism – a separate domain from ruling authorities started to evolve across Europe. “In its clash with the arcane and bureaucratic practices of the absolutist state, the emergent bourgeoisie gradually replaced a public sphere in which the ruler’s power was merely represented before the people with a sphere in which state authority was publicly monitored through informed and critical discourse by the people.” In his historical analysis, Habermas points out three so-called “institutional criteria” as preconditions for the emergence of the new public sphere. The discursive arenas, such as Britain’s coffee houses, France’s salons and Germany’s Tischgesellschaften “may have differed in the size and compositions of their publics, the style of their proceedings, the climate of their debates, and their topical orientations”, but “they all organized discussion among people that tended to be on-going; hence they had a number of institutional criteria in common”:

  1. Disregard of status: Preservation of “a kind of social intercourse that, far from presupposing the equality of status, disregarded status altogether. Not that this idea of the public was actually realized in earnest in the coffee houses, salons, and the societies; but as an idea it had become institutionalized and thereby stated as an objective claim. If not realized, it was at least consequential.”
  2. Domain of common concern: “… discussion within such a public presupposed the problematization of areas that until then had not been questioned. The domain of ‘common concern’, which was the object of public critical attention, remained a preserve in which church and state authorities had the monopoly of interpretation. The private people for whom the cultural product became available as a commodity profaned it inasmuch as they had to determine its meaning on their own (by way of rational communication with one another), verbalize it, and thus state explicitly what precisely in its implicitness for so long could assert its authority.”
  3. Inclusivity: However exclusive the public might be in any given instance, it could never close itself off entirely and become consolidated as a clique; for it always understood and found itself immersed within a more inclusive public of all private people, persons who – insofar as they were propertied and educated – as readers, listeners, and spectators could avail themselves via the market of the objects that were subject to discussion. The issues discussed became ‘general’ not merely in their significance, but also in their accessibility: everyone had to be able to participate. Wherever the public established itself institutionally as a stable group of discussants, it did not equate itself with the public but at most claimed to act as its mouthpiece, in its name, perhaps even as its educator – the new form of bourgeois representation”.

Habermas argued that the Bourgeois society cultivated and upheld these criteria. The public sphere was well established in various locations including coffee shops and salons, areas of society where various people could gather and discuss matters that concerned them. The coffee houses in London society at this time became the centres of art and literary criticism, which gradually widened to include even the economic and the political disputes as matters of discussion. In French salons, as Habermas says, “opinion became emancipated from the bonds of economic dependence.” Any new work, or a book or a musical composition had to get its legitimacy in these places. It not only paved a forum for self-expression, but in fact had become a platform for airing one’s opinions and agendas for public discussion.

Parliamentary Action under Charles VII Of France: The emergence of bourgeois public sphere was particularly supported by the 18th century Liberal democracy making resources available to this new political class to establish a network of institutions like publishing enterprises, newspapers and discussion forums, and the democratic press was a main tool to execute this. The key feature of this public sphere was its separation from the power of both the church and the government due to its access to a variety of resources, both economic and social. This collapse was due to the consumerist drive that infiltrated society, so they became more concerned about consumption than political actions, and the capitalistic drive of the mass media. Suddenly the media became a tool of political forces, and a medium for advertisement rather than the medium from which the public got their information on political matters. As Habermas argues, in due course, this sphere of rational and universalistic politics, free from both the economy and the State, was destroyed by the same forces that initially established it.

The growth of capitalistic economy led to an uneven distribution of wealth, thus widening the economic polarity. This resulted in limiting access to the public sphere and the political control of the public sphere was inevitable for the modern capitalistic forces to operate and thrive in the competitive economy. Therewith emerged a new sort of influence, i.e., media power, which, used for purposes of manipulation, once and for all took care of the innocence of the principle of publicity. The public sphere, simultaneously pre-structured and dominated by the mass media, developed into an arena infiltrated by power in which, by means of topic selection and topical contributions, a battle is fought not only over influence but over the control of communication flows that affect behaviour while their strategic intentions are kept hidden as much as possible.


About Gerard Hannan

Media Student at MIC/UL in Limerick, Ireland. Worked as a Broadcaster/Journalist in Limerick for over 25 Years and has also published four local interest books.

Posted on March 30, 2012, in Media and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Hmmm…I will take that into consideration. I am a writer not a photographer and I dont know what is copyright on pictures and so on. But you certainly have given me food for thought.


  1. Pingback: What’s 10 Questions Between Friends (2) – My Interview w/ Ms. Emily from the Grounding My Roots Blog « A Spoonful of Suga

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