The public sphere is an indispensable element of a democratic society and the institutional core of democratic decision-making. Every democratic political order is essentially based on the idea that citizens participate in collectively binding decisions, articulate their interests and opinions openly, listen and evaluate the opinions and arguments of others, and, on that basis, make up their minds. The public sphere establishes an arena of discussion on public affairs and guarantees that all these processes are open to the public.
In everyday usage, the term “public sphere” is associated with “the public”, i.e. the people as a whole or a group of people having common interests (e.g., “the reading public”). Scientific definitions of the concept vary across different theoretical schools of thought. Mostly the term refers to the institutionalization of a realm of social life for the exchange of information and opinions. The public sphere in the narrower sense is the act of free citizens gathering together for debate in order to achieve a rational regulation of public affairs. Another facet of the concept denotes the structures and contents of the public political debate itself. In a third dimension of the meaning, the term refers to the public spaces in which public communication regularly takes place: streets and squares, formal and informal gathering places, publicly meeting institutions of the political system, and the arena of the mass media.
Habermas And The Public Sphere
Proponents of critical theory working at the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt had a decisive influence on the development of the concept of the public sphere. The most famous work of the Frankfurt School, Dialectic of enlightenment by Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno (1972), written in the early 1940s while in American exile, focuses on the mass production and consumption of cultural goods as well as their spread via the media. The authors deny any enlightening impact of the predominant media practice in the United States of the 1940s and describe it instead as a form of mass deception. This characteristic of the“culture industries” necessarily accompanies the development from market capitalism to state and monopoly capitalism. Applied to the concept of the public sphere, the culture industry thesis implies three thoughts. The main realm for the exchange of opinions in modern society is the mass media arena. Its commercial basis leads to the standardization and trivialization of all cultural products. Through this, public communication becomes a commodity; its exchange value is more important than its utility value.
Jürgen Habermas, the most prominent representative of the “second generation” of the Frankfurt School, in his seminal work on The structural transformation of the public sphere (1989) contrasts the bourgeois public sphere of the liberal democracies of seventeenthand eighteenth-century Europe with the debased public sphere of late capitalism. Habermas follows the traditional orientation of critical theory, which is to measure society not according to what it is but according to what it could be. The model of the bourgeois public sphere serves as a normative backdrop against which the transformation and symptoms of decline in the late capitalist welfare state can be shown all the more clearly. Habermas, like Horkheimer and Adorno before him, is less concerned with the sociology of the public sphere than with a comprehensive analysis of society using the public sphere as an analytical “category.”
Habermas’s understanding of the public sphere takes up Enlightenment philosophy ideas on free deliberation and its inherent potential for rational discussion, debate, and consensus. He points to historical evidence of this in the social developments of Great Britain, France, and Germany after 1680, when the rapidly developing, property-owning, educated bourgeoisie succeeded, for the first time in European history, in openly expressing its demands and developing public opinion as an instrument of critique and of control of state power. The preconditions for this were found in the concrete historical situation at the beginning of the eighteenth century, when the feudal authorities (church, princes, and nobility) disintegrated. As an accompanying development, bourgeois society as well as the new sphere of public authority came into being with national and territorial states. The public sphere as a mediator filled the space between bourgeois society, now a private realm, and the public authority of the state. Places for reasoning and meaningful argument were, in addition to newspapers and journals, a variety of public spaces like pubs, coffee houses, table societies, political clubs, and literary salons, where a self-confident bourgeoisie gathered to contribute everyday knowledge and life-world experience to the discussion of public affairs. Here it was not simply private, partial interests that were moved up against the state, but rather rational critical debate, out of which a discourse-mediated common will emerged.
Precisely because the basis of the public sphere lies in the autonomy of the human life-world from the state, the social structural transformation of the public sphere started, according to Habermas, at the moment when the strict separation between private life and public authority began to erode. With the development of modern welfare states in the late nineteenth century, state authority and civil society became increasingly interwoven. For one, powerful interest groups are increasingly successful in their attempts to influence state decision-making in their favor. For another, the state intervenes ever more deeply in the private realm and in people’s economic activities. With the expansion of the social basis of public debates beyond the bounds of the classical educated bourgeoisie, the forms of participation in the public sphere change: the tendency toward active discourse is eclipsed by passive consumption of public communications. It is no longer general interests and the public good that determine the form and contents of discursive argumentation in the public sphere, but instead unequal partial interests.
The structural transformation brings with it a functional change of the public sphere. With the emergence of the mediated public sphere as the central forum of modern societies, the bilateral character and discursiveness that mark the ideal of deliberative assembly lose importance. The public sphere that is now manufactured by the mass media relies on organized contributors. It therefore stands open mainly to powerful and resource-strong actors in the state and economy. The citizens themselves are forced back, as in absolutist states, into the role of spectators (“re-feudalization”).
Several authors have taken Habermas’s conception as a point of departure for their own theoretical and empirical research on the public sphere. Early on, sociologist Oskar Negt and filmmaker Alexander Kluge (1993) criticized Habermas’s concept from a neo-Marxist perspective. They put forward, as opposed to rational discourse, an alternative understanding of the public sphere as a form of organization of collective social experience. In contrast to Habermas’s ideal of the bourgeois public sphere, they articulate the notion of an oppositional, proletarian public sphere. In view of the hegemony of the dominant ideology within the bourgeois public sphere, Negt and Kluge seek the conditions of emancipation and self-enlightenment of the proletariat in the counter-public sphere (“counter publicity”).
Niklas Luhmann, a longstanding opponent of Habermas within German sociology, thoroughly criticized Habermas’s concept of the public sphere, arguing that consensus is not the result but a prerequisite of communication. In order to be able to communicate successfully at all, one must have issues at one’s disposal that are accepted by all participants. In the case of political communication, public opinion as “the issues structure of political communication” indicates which issues can be brought forward in the political process with an expectation of being heard. For decision-making, the multitude of opinions is then reduced by means of the decision rules of the political system. Power, and not rationality, is what is decisive here (Luhmann 1970, 1986).
US authors criticizing Habermas’s notion of the public sphere refer mainly to the historical inaccuracy and the over-stylized picture of the bourgeois public sphere. It is to that degree questionable whether rational-critical argumentation ever played as powerful a role as Habermas describes. Critics also address the problem of the exclusionary character of the bourgeois public sphere, excluding the working class as well as women. Beyond that, Habermas is found to underestimate the role of science and religion in the bourgeois public sphere in favor of literature. Regarding the media, Habermas is criticized for not recognizing tabloidization tendencies as early as the seventeenth century and, on the other hand, for drawing an overly one-sided picture of entertainment-oriented television consumers in modern times. Particularly, communication scholars reproach Habermas for having an inadequate understanding of the functions of the modern mass media. With reference to media forms that interlace interpersonal and mass communication, they point out that discourse does not necessarily require direct communication among people who are all present at any one place. They suggest that the public sphere of modern societies should be conceived not as a uniform communication space but instead as a network of more or less closely connected subsidiary public spheres or clusters of denser communication (Calhoun 1992; Roberts & Crossley 2004).
Based on the idea that in modern societies the mass media builds the central arena of public spheres, contemporary empirical work focuses on the deliberative quality of media discourses. Drawing on normative criteria from the Habermasian model of the public sphere, such as the inclusiveness of discourse, the reciprocity of the participants, the degree of mutual respect, and the level of reflexivity, several studies try to measure the quality of media coverage on controversial policy issues. For example, Gerhards (1997) investigates whether the abortion discourse as reflected in German media meets the demands of Habermas’s conception. According to his findings, the media discourse is conducted mainly in the exclusive circle of the political elites, and the participants in the discourse speak more about each other than with each other. An international comparative study on the same topic shows that public discourse in the United States comes closer to the participatory model of democracy, because here more actors and arguments of civil society are included, while the elitecentered marketplace of ideas and arguments in the German case accords with the model of liberal democracy (Ferree et al. 2002). In both countries the media discourses do not meet the high normative standards of a rational-critical public sphere.
Public Sphere Revisited
Since the 1980s, cognizant of the criticisms and further developing his ideas, Habermas (1985, 1996) has qualified his originally pessimistic view of the potentials of the democratic public sphere. He no longer sees the public sphere as a category typical of an epoch that is tied to historically unique conditions, but rather bases a hope for emancipation and democratization on the universal capacity of human communication for reason and mutual understanding, which can unfold in historically contingent forms of the public sphere. He changes his fictive, ideal-type understanding of the public sphere to a conception of the public sphere “as intermediary system of communication between formally organized and informal face-to-face deliberations in arenas at both the top and the bottom of a political system” (Habermas 2006, 415). The task of the media is to make public and to confront selected issues, arguments, and opinions of the political elites and actors in civil society. Even though mediated communication lacks the defining features of deliberation, it can still function as an arena for perception, identification, and definition of problems related to society as a whole. It thus delivers necessary input for rational decision-making in the institutionalized discourses of the political system. In the working together of everyday talk, mediated public communication, and institutionalized forms of deliberation in the center of the political system, well-grounded opinions on social problems can thus be developed.
- Calhoun, C. (ed.) (1992). Habermas and the public sphere. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Ferree, M. M., Gamson, W. A., Gerhards, J., & Rucht, D. (2002). Shaping abortion discourse: Democracy and the public sphere in Germany and the United States. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Gerhards, J. (1997). Diskursive versus liberale Öffentlichkeit: Eine empirische Auseinandersetzung mit Jürgen Habermas. Kölner Zeitschrift für Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie, 49, 1–34.
- Habermas, J. (1985). Theory of communicative action, vols. 1–2 (trans. T. McCarthy). Boston: Beacon Press. (Original work published 1981).
- Habermas, J. (1989). The structural transformation of the public sphere. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. (Original work published 1962).
- Habermas, J. (1996). Between facts and norms: Contributions to a discourse theory of law and democracy (trans. W. Rehg). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. (Original work published 1992).
- Habermas, J. (2006). Political communication in media society: Does democracy still enjoy an epistemic dimension? The impact of normative theory on empirical research. Communication Theory, 16, 411–426.
- Horkheimer, M., & Adorno, T. W. (1972). Dialectic of enlightenment. New York: Seabury. (Original work published 1944).
- Luhmann, N. (1970). Öffentliche Meinung [Public opinion]. Politische Vierteljahresschrift, 11, 2–28.
- Luhmann, N. (1986). Ecological communication (trans. J. Bednarz, Jr.). Cambridge: Polity.
- Negt, O., & Kluge, A. (1993). Public sphere and experience (trans P. Labanyi, J. O. Daniel, & A. Oksiloff, foreword M. Hansen). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
- Roberts, M., & Crossley, N. (eds.) (2004). After Habermas: New perspectives on the public sphere. Oxford: Blackwell.