The Public Sphere: The Critical Theory of Jürgen Habermas

The public sphere is an area in social life where people can get together and freely discuss and identify societal problems, and, through that discussion, influence political action.

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Habermas' definition of the public sphere:

"a domain of our social life in which such a thing as public opinion can be formed."












The French Salon -- The Bourgeois Public Sphere

“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.”

Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere











Gustav Caillebotte, Floorscrapers, 1876.

Peering into the Bourgeois Private Sphere





Liberal Democracy and the Citizen Subject

Characteristics of the Bourgeois Subject: properties, educated, private, free, autonomous or independent or unencumbered, rational, able to responsibly exercise his/her franchise.










The Four Estates:

The clergy (first), nobility (second), bourgeoisie (third), and press (fourth)









The Fourth Estate, the press, was an institution of the public itself. Inititally a political vehicle for private persons locating and debating common interests, the press served as an informational tool in the development of participatory democracy. Soon, however, it became a commercial tool, more concerned with advertising than with the formation of public opinion. This has contributed to the decline of the public sphere, and what Habermas dubs its "re-feudalization."










Public Opinion:

"The functions of criticism and control of organized state authority that is informally exercised by a public."














The public sphere mediates between state and society.













The public is a vehicle of public opinion.








Ideal Speech Situation

Rules for an 'ideal speech situation' to occur:

1. Every subject with the competence to speak and act is allowed to take part in a discourse.

2a. Everyone is allowed to question any assertion whatever.

2b. Everyone is allowed to introduce any assertion whatever into the discourse.

2c. Everyone is allowed to express his [sic] attitudes, desires and needs.

3. No speaker may be prevented, by internal or external coercion, from exercising his [sic] rights as laid down in (1) and (2). ("Diskursethik," 86)





Institutional Criteria for Emergence of New Public Sphere:

1) Disregard of Social Status

2) Domain of Common Concern

3) Inclusivity









An instance of the new public sphere?

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Occupy Wall Street


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Counter-Publics: Three Critiques of the Public Sphere (Fraser)

1) Hegemonic dominance and exclusion














2) Ignoring inequalities











3) The problematic definition of "common concern"











Mass Media: From Public Opinion Formation to PR

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Theories of Media Effects

1) Hypodermic needle theory (Harold Lasswell)

Mass media have a direct, immediate and powerful effect on their audiences.









2) Agenda Setting theory (McCombs and Shaw)

Mass-news media have a large influence on audiences by their choice of what stories to consider newsworthy and how much prominence and space to give them.







3) The Accessibility Bias

Information that can be more easily retrieved from memory dominates our judgments, opinions and decisions.












4) Cognitive effects model (Lazarsfeld)

Media have an indirect influence on the attitudes of an audience.








Public Spheres 2.0