A Powerful Public Sphere?
Ph.D. Christina Fiig
Department of History, International and Social Studies
Centre for Gender Research
DK-9220 Aalborg East
Paper for Årsmøde i Netværket for Politisk Teori, Radisson SAS H.C. Andersen Hotel, Odense, DK, November 16th -17th, 2006.
A Powerful Public Sphere?
By Ph.D. Christina Fiig, Assistant Professor, Department of History, International and Social Studies, Centre of Gender Research, Aalborg University, Denmark
Due to its wide range of positive connotations (freedom of speech, civil society and political transformation), the term public sphere seems to elicit a positive response. The debate on the public sphere is as sprawling and paradoxical as the public sphere is anarchistic, ‘einen wilden Komplex’, and includes various elements, units, take different forms and hosts different debates (Eriksen & Weigård 1999: 250). Consequently, there is no such thing as one final definition of the public sphere. The term public sphere has been employed in fields from sociology and political science to cultural studies and communication and ascribed so many different meanings that it almost has acquired ‘commonsensual status’. In the following, I present a discussion of different concepts of a public sphere. My purpose in providing this account is to demonstrate an analytical model of a public sphere for mapping out empirical analysis. 1
The German sociologist and philosopher Jürgen Habermas locates the early bourgeois public sphere in salons, literary societies, cafes and newspapers of the eighteenth century. In its classical sense, this public was envisioned as an arena of public discussion, open to all, enabling the individual to engage in informed debate about issues of ‘the common good’. In conceptual terms, the public sphere is non-coercive, secular, and rational established through individual rights that provide citizen with protection from state incursions. It is founded on rational debate and universal argumentation. In principle, it entitles everybody to speak without any limitation, whether on themes, participants, questions, time or resources (Eriksen & Fossum 2002:403, Habermas 1971).2 In the 1990s, Habermas (1996a) has conceptualised the public sphere as complex, criss-crossing local, national and global networks, which work as arenas for hermeneutical self-understanding, for recognition of new societal complex of problems and for debates which are, broadly speaking, directed towards political decision-making. The recent work is part of the ‘deliberative turn’ within theories of democracy.3 This turn represents a renewed concern with the authenticity of democracy: the degree to which democratic control is substantive rather than symbolic, and engaged by competent citizens (Dryzek 2000).
Firstly, the underlying idea that I pursue is that the recent Habermasian theory of the public sphere has analytical and democratic potentials and that the public sphere forms a powerful political site as well as a good terrain for public recognition of private matters. For example, in Habermas’ writings of the 1990s (1992, 1994a, 1996a), subjects related to feminism, gender and the women’s movement have been thematized in relation to the theory of democracy, the public sphere and to the debate on recognition. The dialogue between Habermas and feminist political theory has contributed to the development of a more inclusive perspective on the model of deliberative democracy and on the public sphere. Regarding the latter, feminist political theory discusses a claim to solidarity (Dean 1996), to particularity (Benhabib 1992), to heterogeneity (Young 2000) and to elements of a post-bourgeois conception of a public sphere (Fraser 1992).
Secondly, Habermas’ (1987) general reservation towards constructing institutional design points towards design considerations and hereby ways of bridging between a normative concept and an empirical category of the public sphere (Eriksen & Weigaard 1999).4 The discrepancy forms a structural aspect of an analysis framed by Habermasian theory.5 This also covers the particular case of the public sphere. I agree with the Norwegian political scientists Erik Oddvar Eriksen and John Erik Fossum in their pointing at the importance of developing concretisations and operationalisations of the theory recognizing the need for greater practical basis on a lower level of abstraction than it prescribes. The conceptual expansion of the theory has to take place in confrontation with empirical material and not through principles of theoretisation (1999: 263). The two authors’ suggestion involves not using the principle of design at a societal (macro) level, but at the level of social organising such as groups and associations in which the participants decide on the framework for their cooperation.6
The originality of my position lies in the particular way I approach the concepts of the public sphere in analytical terms. I base the demonstration of the model on two theoretical debates: the one initiated by the American political theorist Nancy Fraser (1992) and the further development of Fraser’s work by Eriksen and Weigård
Fraser’s basic framework is rooted in the model of the bourgeois public sphere and questioned the claim that public discourses in a democracy should be conceptualised as a single public sphere. As an alternative, she proposed different types of publics and subaltern publics, i.e. the concepts of strong and weak publics, which have been adapted by Habermas in Between Facts and Norms (1996a: section 9.2). 7 The theory has gained currency as an ideal typical description of two types of publics. Eriksen and Fossum (2002) have elaborated the line of thought further by pointing at a terminological change from a weak to a general public and by affirming a hierarchical relation between the two types of publics.
There seems to be a type of odd slippage in the literature as none of the abovementioned theories have developed systematic parameters which facilitate the use of the public sphere as an analytical, empirical model. My point of departure is that it is insufficient to refer to the public sphere in terms of an ideal type inadequately conceptualized to allow an application in an empirical context.
The fact that a number of theories have recently begun to explore the potential of the notion of a public sphere has impelled me to turn to the above research area with two questions in mind. First, I have asked in what ways political theory can allow a more detailed investigation and understanding of the meaning of the concept of a public sphere. Secondly, and clearly related to the first inquiry, I have aimed to develop a concept of a public sphere in a specific context and on the basis of this discussed in what ways a public sphere situated outside the parliamentary complex can be characterized as powerful and not ‘weak’, to employ Fraser’s term (1992). [The second question is only formulated as a series of open questions in this version].
2. Strong, Weak and General Publics
The distinction between the concepts of strong, weak and general publics is instrumental to my analysis. In what follows, I will demonstrate how the conceptual move beyond a concept of a weak public can facilitate a more useful model. I aim through this exercise to bring out some understandings of the general public and to point at some of the differences between strong, weak and general publics. I present the three types of publics as distinct characters with different parameters; the devil, as ever, in the details. Empirically speaking, this distinction is somewhat artificial, as it will become apparent in the table below. For example, actors have overlapping identities as they move between different arenas and ways of communicating depending on the issue at stake, who they are interacting with or confronting, and what they see as possibilities for action and achievement (Young 2001: 688).8 There are publics where people meet face- to- face, written ones and fora based on new technologies (Habermas 1996a).
In the coming section, I discuss one of the parameters which is absent in the existing literature- the type of communication involved. I employ Young’s concept of inclusive political communication (2000) dealing with types of communication in relation to the public sphere.
In the 1990s, Habermas retains an emphasis on the concepts of the public sphere and civil society pointing at these as the locus for the formation of public opinion via communicative action. Having developed the original idea of a monolithic concept and sought to integrate the idea of a plurality to the theoretical framework, Habermas seems more attuned to the complexity of contemporary societies, such that opinion-formation occurs in a variety of interacting publics (Dryzek 2000: 25). In this revised conception, the public sphere represents a highly complex network that branches out into a multitude of overlapping international, national, regional, local, and subcultural arenas (Habermas 1996a: 373). Habermas establishes the principles that public discourses not only are compatible with, but also built upon, recognition of the plurality of private need interpretation (ibid.:313-314). He presents an analysis of the myriad social associational areas, channels and networks in civil society through which the pluralist lifeworlds contribute to the elaboration of the public sphere. In elaborating the concepts of the public sphere, he employs the two types of publics developed by Fraser.
Fraser attributes several dispositions to the two types of publics with reference to the early work by Habermas (1971). Fraser and other critical voices have pointed out that the early work failed to break with the liberal conception of the dependence of the idea of the public sphere on an analytical separation between the principles of the public and the private domain. A consequence of this was that types of discourses, which were not part of or in opposition to bourgeois forms of communication became invisible.9 In identifying a range of ‘alternative’ public spheres on different axes such as class, gender, power and profession, Fraser suggests that the notion of the public sphere is de facto a multitude of different publics (1992:123). In Gramscian terms, she argues that a hegemonic relationship can exist between different publics and that members of disadvantaged groups in order to break this hegemony have formed alternative publics. Fraser names these subaltern counterpublics:
“(P)arallel discursive arenas where members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counterdiscourses to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests and needs” (Fraser 1992:123)
The counterpublics reflect various characteristics: they are based on the thinking of a context of dominance, exclusion and subordination and share a dual character of inner withdrawal and regrouping for social groups and a publicist orientation. Besides, they functions as bases for training grounds for external deliberative activities directed towards wider publics and ‘help(s) expand discursive space’ (1992:124). The concept of the subaltern publics is replaced by the two concepts of the strong and weak publics. Strong publics are defined as publics whose discourse encompasses both opinion formation and decision-making in the parliament. Weak publics are defined as publics whose deliberative practice consists exclusively in opinion formation and do not encompass decision- making (1992:134). The term weak describes a sphere of deliberation and formation of political self-understanding for social groups outside the political system and state apparatus.
Eriksen and Fossum (2002) have picked up Fraser’s baton and further developed the concepts of a strong and a general public arguing that the adjective weak is inadequate. One central aspect of the theoretical elaboration is this terminological shift and another is the precise use of several parameters as explained in the following. I agree with Eriksen and Fossum that the term general forms a more precise characterization in describing a type of public sphere rooted in civil society and based on opinion-formation.10
According to Eriksen and Fossum, the strong publics refer to institutionalised deliberations and allude to parliamentary assemblies and discursive bodies in formally organised institutions imbued with decision-making power, yet constrained by the logic of arguing and impartial justification (2002:405). They are policy-making bodies (Benhabib 1996b). General publics refer to a sphere of opinion formation without decision-making power, which do not require an idea about a universal agreement and of a common standpoint as a result of deliberative processes (Eriksen & Weigaard 1999: 165). They refer to the sphere of deliberation outside the political system, i.e. akin to the notion of civil society and to the logic of discovery (Eriksen & Fossum 2002:405). This type of public is the vehicle of “public opinion”. This opinion-formation, uncoupled from decisions, is effected in an open and inclusive network of ‘overlapping, subcultural publics having fluid temporal, social and substantive boundaries. Within a framework guaranteed by constitutional rights, the structures of such a pluralistic public sphere develop more or less spontaneously (Habermas 1996a: 307).
The two concepts of publics are rooted in what I characterize as ‘a deliberative concept of politics’ in terms of arguments, communication, dialogue and dissent. A broad concept of politics is essential in making visible the communicative process located outside the parliamentary complex. The idea is that politics has moved to new arenas outside the parliament, political parties and organisations and that it has expanded to cover for example body and private life issues (Beck, Giddens & Lash 1994). When so understood, it becomes clear that the ‘political’ in relation to these types of publics is understood as a type of discursive practice (Dewey 1927, Eriksen & Weigaard 1999, Manin 1987).
Typology of Publics
Local, national, international, transnational and global arenas
The parliament and formally organised institutions and organisations with formal decision-power
Mass media, associations, networks, debate meetings, the internet, demonstrations
Issues in the debate
Decision-making and opinion-formation in relation to the parliamentary system
The logic of arguing and
Opinion-formation in relation to broader spheres of deliberation.
The logic of discovery
Politicians, actors representing organisations, journalists, experts
Actors representing associations, journalists, experts, lay people
Type of communication
Institutionalised debates; decision-making and opinion-formation (‘will-formation’)
Debates, opinion-formation, various modes of communication
Comment: The table is based on analyses by Eriksen & Fossum (2002), Fiig (2003, 2006), Fraser (1992), Habermas (1996a) and Young (2000).
3. Types of Communication
Flipping through the above, it becomes clear that the theoretical and conceptual reflections do not include any detailed investigation of the types of communication involved in the different types of publics. Consequently, I suggest Young’s theory of inclusive political communication as a useful illustration of a type of communication broader than the ones related to rational argumentation as proposed by Habermas. Young’s argument is that a broad concept of communication has a function in furthering democratic deliberation (1996, 2000).11 I think this is a crucial element in approaching more carefully a concept of a public sphere in analytical terms.
Young (2000) theorizes three additional modes of communication in addition to making argument: these are greeting, rhetoric and narrative. With these categories, she reflects on modes of communication that appear in everyday communication along the lines of Habermas’ discourse ethics making explicit the implicit norms guiding everyday interaction (p.53). The purpose is to add to rather than replace theorizing that emphasizes the role of argument. Greeting refers to those moments in everyday communication where people acknowledge one another in their particularity. It is a communicative political gesture to solving problems and recognizing others as included in the discussion (p. 57-61). Rhetoric refers to communication with a strategic function which aims at manipulating in directions that serves the speaker’s own ends (ibid: 63-70). Narrative / story-telling refers to ways of telling stories which foster understanding among members of a polity. Story-telling is often the only vehicle for understanding the particular experiences of those in particular social situations (p.73).
“Story-telling is often an important means by which members of such collectives identify one another, and identify the basis of their affinity. The narrative exchanges give reflective voice to situated experiences and help affinity groupings give an account of their own individual identities in relation to their social positioning and their affinities with others. Once in formation, people in local publics often use narratives as means of politicizing their situation (…)” (Young 2000:73)
Young points at some of the dangers of employing the three modes of communication such as the manipulative use of each of them. Rhetoric can trick the audience into accepting harmful policies, narratives can manipulate irrational assent and stories may be false, misleading or self-deceiving (p.78). On a critical note, it is also worth pointing out that other voices of deliberative democratic scholarship have criticised Young’s concept of communication. Benhabib has categorised these three modes as aspects of informal communication, which cannot become the public language of democratic institutions (1996b: 83, see also Young 2000: 77n31). This criticism is relevant when communication is presented in general terms. In relation to the development of the concept of a general public, which is, precisely, based on a broad, decentred concept of politics and not directed towards formal institutions and the parliamentary complex, Benhabib’s point seems less relevant. However, Dryzek underlines another problematic aspect of Young’s inclusive communication by questioning the empirical validity of Young’s claims about the degree to which these three forms equalize across difference (2000: 67).
I find Young’s work useful extending the scoop of political communication. The idea is not to limit political communication to the three types above but to extend the types of communication which can be employed in relation to public communication. The idea is to enlarge a conception of political communication which can match a heterogenic public with different ways of communicating:
“We can conceive the exchange of ideas and processes of communication taking place in a vibrant democracy as far more rowdy, disorderly, and decentred, to use Habermas’ s term. (Young 2001: 688)
On the basis of the previous sections, I can now sketch a (tentative) model of two types of publics. The most obvious aspect of this is simply the possibility of distinguishing between different models and specific parameters of the public sphere understood as an ideal type. The next step is to turn towards the analytical framework and to discuss two analytical characteristics: the contextual side and a methodological note.
Since the concept of the public sphere embodies many subsidiary connotations, many dimensions of the ‘public’ and consequently a range of methods, it becomes a challenge to discuss the notion of the public sphere in more particular terms, to pay attention to the empirical context it is discussed within and its actual design.
4. The Contextual Component
[The status of this section is under reconsiderations].
The British political scientist Anne Phillips has argued that an empirical context can raise separate demands upon a theoretical framework (1995:38, Eriksen & Weigaard 1999).12 My empirical work (Fiig 2003) has lent credence to Phillips’ insights and this idea guides the following argument. I have employed Phillips’ thesis by way of the term ‘contextualization’ for the process of analysing a theoretical concept of a public sphere in an empirical context.
Generally speaking, the term ‘contextualization’ is inspired by the Danish social scientist Bent Flyvbjerg’s argument for integrating a context in the social sciences emphasising elements such as sensitivity to experience, intuition and situation (2001). Flyvbjerg argues for the use of an analytical context in the study of human activity.13
More concretely, it is also inspired by gender research scholarship arguing for an increasing sensitivity towards a geographical and historical context concerning different types of citizenship, feminism, historical development and political culture (Hobson, Lewis and Siim eds.2002). It is an analytical point to reflect upon the grounding of our thinking in a given locality and institutional context and upon our use of imported theoretical concepts, which have often accumulated a lot of academic air miles on their travels (Dahl & Fiig 2005).
Two empirical-historical examples can illustrate the discrepancy between a theoretical concept and one used in a given empirical context. The idea is that a contextual component is constructive in relation to an analysis of a public sphere.
For example, situated in a Scandinavian context, Fraser’s concept of a weak public is not suitable for an analysis of a public sphere outside the parliamentary complex. It is not adequately conceptualised for a public situated in the civil society based on the idea of a substantial split between the public and the private. This does not parallel the public-private split in Scandinavia where political culture and the significance of extra-parliamentary activities from ‘below’ play a significant role (Siim 2000).
Another example is Fraser’s (1992) concept of a feminist public sphere which has beamed the institutions of the American women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s into the spotlight. Fraser exemplifies ‘the late-twentieth-century U.S. feminist subaltern counterpublic’ as an illustration of a weak public with its range of journals, bookstores, publishing companies, film and video distribution networks, lecture series, research centres, academic programs, conferences, conventions, festivals, and local meeting places. She presents several elements of collective (group) exclusion and collective emancipation of the empirical case –a weak public: ‘They insist on speaking publicly of depoliticised needs’, ‘they contest the established boundaries’, ‘they offer alternative interpretations’, ‘they create new discourse publics’ and ‘they challenge and displace hegemonic elements’ (Fraser 1989:171).14 Empirically, this type of public does not reflect a Scandinavian feminist public sphere around year 2000 (Fiig 2003).
5. Methodological Note
[The status of this section is under reconsiderations].
In relation to the previous sections, a methodological note is needed to explain the way I envision the link between the theoretical concepts and the empirical analysis of a public sphere. The British sociologist Derek Layder has coined his approach ‘adaptive theory’ which ‘combines the use of pre-existing theory and theory generated from data analysis in the formulation and actual conduct of empirical research (1998:1).
I have employed the approach of adaptive theory, which indicates that theory ‘is sensitive to, and registers the inputs of, the world of empirical phenomena as they are manifest in the primary data of research’ (1998:150). An approach – along the lines of Phillips (1995)- rooted in the belief that empirical research and general theory can nourish each other mutually and also that empirical fields can confirm or negate aspects of the theory (p.14). Layder argues for the use of what he calls ‘general theory’ for research and for the idea that empirical research has theoretical implications. Suggesting that ‘theory both adapts to, or is shaped by, incoming evidence while the data itself is simultaneously filtered through, and is thus adapted by, the prior theoretical materials (frameworks, concepts, ideas) that are relevant to their analysis’ (p.5).
The litmus test of the above is the question of in what ways the theoretical framework is able to reflect the dynamism of an analytical model of a public sphere and to be applied empirically on for example a media debate. It seems to be of importance to construct a model with analytical parameters. This construction parallels the typology of publics, which I presented previously (table1) added one more parameter of ‘time’ – of a specific time and context. The five parameters do not represent chronological stages, but rather different aspects that have been used in conjunction to lay the groundwork for the analysis. The model works as a list of guiding criteria, which can be applied in general, universal terms but equally require ‘local interpretation’ (Ackerly & Okin 1999).
The ‘When-Where-What-Who-How’-Model of the Public Sphere (Fiig 2003)
When: time and context
Where: location, arena for the debate in the public sphere
What: issues in the debate
Who: actors in the public sphere (education and generation)
How: communication (orientated towards political decision-making - will-formation- or opinion-formation)
6. Discussion: A Powerful Public Sphere?
[The discussion is under revision and therefore formulated as a series of open questions].
Returning to the second question in this article: in what ways a general public sphere situated outside the parliamentary complex can be characterized as ‘powerful’ and not ‘weak’, I now sketch [some open questions]. My initial idea is that the processes of power, which this type of public sphere hosts, can be interpreted within a framework of discursive power: it contributes to the production of identities and capabilities for action and to the politicising of the actors’ life situations.
Three characteristics of a general public illustrate the idea of this type of public’s power potentials. These are the public sphere’s way of functioning 1) internally as an arena for learning and 2) externally as an arena for transformative potentials of politics and (3) finally a third theme deals with the question of the relationship between strong and general publics.
AD 1 An arena for learning
Based on my empirical work, I have concluded that a general public forms a constructive arena for exchanges of convictions and various facets of ‘hermeneutic self-understanding’ on the part of the individual and the collective (Gimmler 2001). It can be used as an arena for creating awareness in a broader society of otherwise relatively ‘invisible’ problems by reconceptualization of a political vocabulary. For example, it can contribute to a thematization and articulation of discourses of a life-political agenda. An agenda, which puts moral and existential questions in the centre of the debate assisting towards the identification of societal problems (Beck, Giddens & Lash 1994). By participating in a public, everyday individual experiences are transformed out of the single actors’ horizon of experiences. The public sphere can function as an arena for collective recognition of private, individualized experiences. One question is how these processes of ‘self-understanding’ and recognition take place in a global or transnational public?
AD 2 An arena for transformative potentials of politics
A general public expands the possibility of democratic inclusion as an arena for recognition of diversity and difference. One way of theorizing the idea of transformative politics is by employing Fraser’s concept of ‘bridging discourses’ which move from one arena to another (1992). Another way is by looking at the ways in which narratives and testimonies can make the audience reflect critically and, in combination with conventional politics, in formal political institutions, lead to political initiatives. For example, some NGOs promote deliberative inquiry amongst their members to share experiences. These inquiries have resulted in radical challenges to the existing human rights paradigm (Ackerly & Okin 1999).
Critical voices in the debate have argued that the explicit link between the concept of the bourgeois public sphere and the notion of a nation state reduces its strength as a model for understanding international and local types of public spheres (Østerud 1996).This raises new challenges and questions to the character and dimensions of transnational and global publics in relation to transformative potentials of politics and to the account of communicative power in a transnational democracy (Dryzek 2000).
AD 3 The hierarchical relationship between strong and general publics
In their analysis of different types of publics, Eriksen and Fossum argue that the strong publics in the EU-system foster general publics. For example, the emergence of the European Parliament as a strong public has spill-over effects on and helps spur general publics (2002). However, there are theoretical and empirical reasons for also arguing that a general public can foster issues which can be transformed into debates on the arena of strong publics. The question is whether or in what ways global or transnational networks and for a assist in fostering general publics which have spill-over effect in relation to strong publics related to formal, political decision-making.
Generally, my aim in this article has been to propose and briefly illustrate an analytical model of a public sphere. I pointed at the orientation towards the particular, the situated and the concrete in relation to concepts of the public sphere. Constructive elements are the distinction between opinion- formation and will- formation (decision making) in the public sphere, a broad deliberative concept of politics and an inclusive concept of political communication. I presented Young’s argument (2000) for employing narratives and greetings as ways of expressing the particularity of experiences.
My work suggests that the concept of a general public sphere including a broad concept of political communication forms an adequate model for publics not limited to the scoop of a centred national public sphere orientated towards the parliamentary complex.
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