Public Sphere

“The idea that a public sphere to which everyone can contribute on equal terms is simply a fantasy. ” To believe that there exists a public sphere where every single member contributes on an equal level is highly unrealistic. Correspondingly, many academics have critically supported as well as argued against this view. There will be discussion of the public sphere and various writer’s views and concepts regarding it, with specific references to Howley (2007) and Turnbull (2006), as well as Hackett (2010), Holub (1994), Apppadurai (2000), Meikle (2008), and Fraser (1990).
The different academics will introduce and discuss; an ideal and flawed public sphere, a democratic public sphere, and the important roles of audiences and participants. Furthermore, there will be a particular focus on Habermas, his theories and findings consequently deconstructing his ideas on his bourgeois public sphere theory. Overall, the key argument in this discussion is that the public sphere is ideally seen as an arena for equal opinions, however pragmatically this is not the case and it is difficult to achieve it because of the different factors that exist between individuals and participants.
Holub (1994) explains the public sphere as; “a realm in which opinions are exchanged between private persons unconstrained (ideally) by external pressures. Theoretically open to all citizens and founded in the family, it is the place where something approaching public opinion is formed. It should be distinguished both from the state, which represents official power, and from the economic structures of civil society as a whole.

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Its function is actually to mediate between society and state; it is the arena in which the public organizes itself, formulates public opinion, and expresses its desires vis-a-vis [face to face with] the government”. Similarly, a majority of modern conceptualisations of the public sphere relate back to Jurgen Habermas and his bourgeois public sphere. Habermas defines it as a space of reflective discussion about issues and subjects of a common interest, following an informed democratic procedure (Meikle 2008).
Thus, a relevant example would be; supplying different resources of media to developing countries in preparation for an election or some sort political decision. By doing this, individuals are being provided an informed democratic process, allowing them access to sources of independent media to make a more informed decision before they elect. This is often present in events such as elections as it is an arena where private people come together as a public; as one. By looking back, the characteristics of the public sphere have not changed when comparing the old and contemporary.
Meikle (2008) discusses how Habermas emphasized the role of periodical press in the development of his public sphere (p. 129), describing it as the ‘coffee-house culture’ and how at the time people would sit and discuss topics and events which would in turn lead to influencing the political culture of the 17th and 18th century. However, it must also be noted that Habermas’ accepted criticism to his notion, as well as making it clear that the public sphere is not given to every type of society, and it does not own a fixed status.
Furthermore, Meikle (2008) also likens the public sphere to a place where participants can discuss their ideas freely. However, it is important to regard these definitions as the ‘idyllic’ public sphere, Holub (1994) mentions ‘ideally’ in brackets, because realistically it is unachievable to have this sort of ‘perfect’ public sphere where everyone contributes equally. Many academics have criticized Habermas’ bourgeois public sphere, questioning if it ever really existed, and if it did, would it really be able to ever exist again?
On that note, Hackett (2010) brings forth the notions that this concept of Habermas’ public sphere that presumes rationality, equality is false, and consequently, he critiques it, alongside Fraser (1990), saying that; “it embeds a masculinist notion of rationality, and a taken-for granted gendered distinction between private and public spheres. It ignores the ‘counter’ and minority public spheres of subordinate groups, the intrusion of social and economic inequalities into the processes of the public sphere, and the conversion of public opinion into effective state policy through representative political mechanisms. (2010, p. 4). Additionally, Fraser (1990) looks at how Habermas’ theory of the bourgeois public sphere constitutes a number of exclusions, in particular excluding women and individuals of lower social class, as it was not accessible to all. Lower class people did not have the resources and women did not have the same rights, privileges and power as men, in society, to have their equal say. Moreover some of these factors are still relevant, such as the social classes and accessibility to resources.
Furthermore, Fraser (1990) mentions the exclusion of subordinate groups, where she states “subordinate groups sometimes cannot find the right voice or words to express their thoughts, and when they do, they discover they are not heard [and] are silenced, encouraged to keep their wants inchoate, and heard to say ‘yes’ when what they have said is ‘no. ’” (1990, p. 64). It is evident, that this access, whether it is technological, power or status related, to contributing to the public sphere still does not equate to equality.
Rather, the factors that need to be considered are not access alone, but also what kind of ‘voice’ the speaker possesses in society. All of which are dependent on a number of factors, such as the speaker’s status in society, gender, age, class, education, culture and country. Moreover, public spheres are relevant in today’s new social media’s like Twitter, Facebook and various blogs. They create an arena in which social sites, like these, generate meanings which are then distributed and discussed amongst a large audience, consequently becoming a public sphere and letting interaction occur with all its participants.
This emergence of social media has called for a new public sphere to be formed. Meikle (2008) discusses how media is an integral aspect of the public sphere and that in present society, it is inescapable. Media plays an obligatory part; today’s “newspapers and magazines, [internet,] radio and television are the media of the public sphere” (Habermas in Meikle, 2008, p. 128). However, for Habermas this role that media plays is an issue, stating that the world shaped by the mass media is only a public sphere on the exterior; only in ‘appearance’ and nothing else.
Though the public sphere cannot be regarded as equal, Meikle does suggest that it can be look at in a positive sense; regarding it as a useful standard against which we can measure how the media actually do operate (Meikle, 2008, p. 131). Furthermore, Habermas’ ideal public sphere has often been said that it is being compromised by contemporary tabloid media and culture. It produces a blur between the private and public spheres in regards to celebrity culture and making their private lives a public concern and discussion.
As well as regarding media as just pure entertainment, the tabloid media are constructing participants who only consume what they are being fed by the media instead of making their own informed decisions (Meikle 2008). Furthermore, Habermas (in Meikle 2008) believes that our contemporary political mediascapes, which refers to the “distribution of electronic capabilities to produce and disseminate information [such as] newspapers, magazines and… Television stations” (Apppadurai, 2000, p. 326), are in fact are a long way away from being an ‘ideal public sphere’.
He looks at how “public opinion is no longer produced by the public, instead, public opinion is now something produced for the public” (2008, p. 129) we are being influenced and there is no opportunity to discuss ideas freely, or for there to be complete equality in the contribution to the public sphere because of the different factors that come into play. Similarly, Habermas (in Meikle 2008) uses the term ‘equals’ in regards to participants in the public sphere. Yet, Meikle (2008), in accordance to Fraser’s (1990) view, discusses how the public sphere cannot guarantee each person’s contribution to be of equal amount.
This is because of the reasons and factors that exist in society such as; power and status; celebrity power over ordinary individuals, access to resources; developed and developing countries, and gender; the imbalance of power between men and women. Turnbull (2006) looks at the roles of audiences, and why their role is so vital in instances like these. Turnbull discusses the media’s audience and argues how media is looked at as a centrality in our lives and world, some have less or no access and the social and cultural context of the individual is “embedded in their access to and use of various media technologies”…
The “participation [of audiences] in an increasingly mediated public sphere may be largely conditional” (p. 80), as it alters the stance on every participant having an ‘equal’ contribution to the public sphere. Howley (2007) states that people need to promote a more democratic media culture, for a place that individuals can share their mutual interests and concerns, discuss topics. He supports that there is not one sole public sphere because there is not a single medium that is ‘perfect’ (pp. 357-358).
Furthermore, Howley (2007) brings forth the idea that the public sphere is the centrality for media institutions but is also significant for media students, providing a theoretical perspective; it helps to emphasize the essential and crucial relationships between democracy and modern communication systems. As the role of a democracy, a citizen who is informed and wishes to engage, needs to be accommodated by the media; providing them resources of news, information and opinion, for that individual to then be able to use this to identify themselves towards this common interest.
However, this notion of a democratically public sphere has issues that arise, the main one being the nature and conduct of public discourse in a highly mobile and heterogeneous society. By regarding societies that have things like ethnic, religious and cultural diversity, partisan politics, and economic stratification present, the sole idea of achieving agreement on matters of public policy seem inaccessible and unachievable.
Also, another issue is the “contemporary media systems – characterised by unprecedented consolidation of ownership and control on the one hand, and the fragmentation of mass audiences into even smaller ‘niche markets’ on the other – makes issues of access to and participation in public discourse equally problematic” (pp. 343-344). Thus, this idea of an equal and democratic public sphere is difficult to have and carry out. In conclusion, the ideal public sphere tries to offer a place where people are able to discuss their ideas freely between one another.
However, to believe that individuals can discuss in a completely free manner, with no influence and be complete equals, contributing on equal terms, is a far-fetched hope. There can only ever be a place of equality and rationality in an ideal society, as factors of social, linguistic and cultural inequalities, rights and even freedom of speech of an individual, all affect any possibility of equal communication and contribution between people in a public sphere.

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