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Habermas’ definition of a public sphere is the first and founding trigger to classification attempts of the formation of public opinions and the legitimisation of state and democracy in post-war Western societies. It is widely accepted as the standard work but has also been widely challenged as the concept of the public sphere is constantly developing. To get a good grasp of general criticism and current approaches towards an up-to-date understanding of what and in which ways public opinions are shaped, general terms of the Habermasian model have to be explained.

The public sphere is seen as a domain of social life where public opinion can be formed. (Habermas, 1991, 398) It can be seen as the breeding ground, if you want. Habermas declares several aspects as vital for the public sphere. Mainly it is open to all citizens and constituted in every conversation in which individuals come together to form a public. The citizen plays the role of a private person who is not acting on behalf of a business or private interests but as one who is dealing with matters of general interest in order to form a public sphere. There is no intimidating force behind the public sphere but its citizens assemble and unite freely to express their opinions. The term of a political public sphere is introduced for public discussions about topics connected to the state and political practice. Although Habermas considers state power as ‘public power’ (ibid. 398) which is legitimized through the public in elections, the state and its forceful practices and powers are not part but are a counterpart of a public sphere where opinions are formed. Therefore public opinion has to control the state and its authority in everyday discussions, as well as through formal elections. A public sphere is the basic requirement to mediate between state and society and in an ideal situation permits democratic control of state activities. To allow discussions and the formation of a public opinion a record of state-related activities and legal actions has to be publicly accessible.

Habermas dates the formation of the terms of public sphere and public opinion back to the 18th century. Before the rise of the Bourgeoisie and the creation of bourgeois public spheres the understanding of the term ‘public’ was quite different. Before that time the representation of authority through a lord was called ‘public’ referring to the public representation lords were seen as. This public representation was merely stating their authorities before the people than for the people they governed. Although the basic concept of representation through a government or head of state remained, the attachment to aristocracy was discarded over time. By the end of the 18th century the feudal powers of church and nobility diminished paving the way for the rise of a bourgeois society in Europe. With it the meaning of the word ‘public’ changed as well. ‘Public’ no longer described the representative court of a person and their authority. It came to mean the legitimising regulations of an institutional system that held governing powers. Citizens were now subsumed under the state forming the public. (Habermas, 1991, 401)

Habermas’ liberal model of a public sphere holds a normative claim. This means, that it is describing many idealised issues , pointing towards how a public sphere should ideally be. As such it does not actually exist in modern democracies that are industrially advanced, constituted as a social-welfare state and where masses of people are supposed to form a public. It is an idealistic model of democracy which is shaped through structural changes of society that ended in a transformed understanding of the public sphere. Habermas himself had to admit that the participation of women and the inclusion of minorities is not guaranteed by his model relying on the circumstances of bourgeois society in the early 19th century. In the following interview Jürgen Habermas describes the most important results of many years of his research as well as certain limitations.

– Habermas Interview uploaded by Youtube user davidmeme (Standard Youtube License)

Habermas and many other scholars have worked to further develop and broaden the understanding of his theories for modern societies. Other theorists and their concepts of the public sphere and related terms such as public opinion can be found in our other posts in the category of Media and Democracy.

Discussion:
Why is Habermas’ public sphere described as normative?
Do you think the internet changes the understanding of the public sphere as described above?

Reference:

Habermas, J.(1991): “The public sphere” In Mukerji, C.; Schudson, M.(Ed.): Rethinking popular culture. Contemporary perspectives in cultural studies. Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press. pp.398-404.

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