The past few decades have seen a plethora of research studies exploring on the emergence and transformation of the public sphere (Benson 2009). Most of these works have been influenced and guided by the work of Jurgen Habermas, particularly his concept of the bourgeois public sphere. This paper outlines and evaluates Habermas’s theory of the transformation and the subsequent decline of the ‘public sphere’.
The focus is mainly on the transformation of the bourgeois public sphere into an arena for the formation of a critical public opinion and its subsequent decline facilitated by social and economic developments, especially the press and mass media. The paper evaluates Habermas’s arguments and also presents criticisms related to his theory including the idea of a single public sphere, the exclusionary nature, the assumption of a sharp-separation between the state and civil society, and the idea of a public sphere of ‘rational-critical discourse’.
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The past few decades have seen an increasing number of research studies exploring on the emergence and transformation of the public sphere (Benson 2009). Most of these works have been influenced by Habermas’s concept of the bourgeois public sphere. In his groundbreaking analysis of the public sphere, ‘the structural transformation of the public sphere’, Jurgen Habermas offers a rich account of the rise, transformation and subsequent decline of the bourgeois public sphere (Benson 2009). Informed by the Frankfurt School tradition, Habermas provides a historically and socially grounded elucidation of the public sphere that precludes to his theory of communicative action (Defile 2008). His work has formed the basis of discussion for most debates on the emergence of the public sphere.
In line with the above, this paper outlines and evaluates Habermas’s concept of the ‘public sphere. The focus is mainly on the transformation of the bourgeois public sphere into an arena for the formation of a critical public opinion and its subsequent decline facilitated by social and economic developments, especially the press and mass media. The paper evaluates Habermas’s arguments and also presents criticisms related to his theory.
The emergence of the public sphere
The bourgeois public sphere was first developed in the 18th century in Britain (Habermas 1964). As Habermas (1964) points out, the public sphere emerged as a space where private individuals free from the state/economy would come together to discuss issues of shared importance. A key feature of Habermas’s theory of public sphere was the public use of reason as it existed in the 18th century (Johnson 2006). This was used to check illegitimate use of power and domination by the state. This was however influential were it was considered free from prejudice. Rational-critical debate thus occurred in open and unconstrained spaces such as the coffee-houses and salons (Johnson 2006).
People met in such places to discuss issues of shared importance such as politics and the economy. The public sphere was then a domain where private individuals could confront and critique activities of the state in open and unconstrained spaces. In the 19th century, the bourgeois public sphere was institutionalized within the European constitutional states, where the public use of reason in rational-critical debate was enshrined as a way of checking illegitimate use of power and domination (Raymond 1981).
His model of public sphere was based on universality of knowledge and participation to all, wherein each and every individual had the right to voice their concerns and to be assisted in democratic issues of importance (Fraser 2007). The press was one way in which the public sphere spread universality of knowledge and participation to all. The media press first facilitated the emergence of public sphere by creating journals, newspapers, books and pamphlets, which in turn created a strong civil society detached from the state (Fraser 2007). Journalism became the fourth state of the society and a benevolent form of free expression that is against states controlled forms of communications (Susen 2011). This led to the scrutiny of parliament and constitutional extension of rights of freedom of speech and expression (Susen 2011).
Whilst Habermas points out to the bourgeois public sphere of the 18th century as an ideal model, he recognizes that there were problems with its universalism. Being part of the public depended on owning property and the level of literacy or one’s education. Access to the public sphere was limited only to property owners and literacy was an implicit requirement for participation in the public sphere (Dahlgren & Sparks 1991).
He conceptualizes the public sphere as having developed from private institution of the family, a process he labels as liberal public sphere. Based on his model which conceptualizes the public sphere as comprising of private individuals whose social interconnectedness transcends the boundaries of their personal lives; it can be argued that both the public and private sphere are mutually inclusive social realms (Suse 2011).
Transformation and subsequent decline of public sphere
With laissez-faire capitalism reaching its height in the mid-19th century, philosophers such as Mill and De Tocqueville began calling for delimitation of the role and power of what had come to be known as the public opinion, arguing about the dangerous possibilities of the prevailing social order (Dahlgren & Sparks 1991). However, the disintegration of the bourgeois public is not much attributed to the philosophical arguments but rather to rapid social developments such as growth of literacy, urbanization, industrialization, and the popular press among other factors (Dahlgren & Sparks 1991). These developments increasingly blurred the distinction between the public and state, resulting in what Habermas calls refeudalization (Dahlgren & Sparks 1991).
The private and public spheres entangled and this led to a shrinking or collapse of the private sphere. These developments also led to the shift from a public of political and cultural debaters to a culture consuming public. The rational-critical debate was replaced by consumption; and the public sphere became invaded by competing organized private interests (Dahlgren & Sparks 1991).
Habermas argues that these changes were to a large extent a product of the media and points out that the public sphere continues to exist but only in appearance. With mass-media newspapers acquiring a mass circulation, they became absorbed into giant capitalist corporations that protected vested interests of a few powerful members of the society (Raymond 1981). Public opinion gradually lost its critical function and subsequently its autonomy. Further changes occurred with the welfare state of the 20th century (Dahlgren & Sparks 1991).
There is no doubt that Habermas’s seminal work offers a powerful narrative about the development, transformation and subsequent decline of the public sphere in the modern era. Central to his account are the media and the press which are viewed as contributing to the decline of the bourgeois public sphere. Habermas argues that transformations in the public sphere have resulted due to publicity and social engineering by the media.
He points out that the process of rational discourse in public opinion has been replaced by media engineering (Elliot 2009). He argues that televisions have appealed to emotions and the commercialization of the press has caused the decay of the critical discourse (Habermas 1989). The public sphere has become a platform for media publicity and social engineering. He criticizes the media as manipulative and that its commercialization had led to the conjuring up reality (Elliot 2009).
Criticism of Habermas’s theory
Whilst his approach provides a rich insight about the emergence and subsequent decline of the public sphere, it is marred with several controversies. One controversial aspect which has generated considerable criticism is the homogeneity of unitary public sphere (Curran 2000). Critics have argued that his conceptualization of a singular public sphere fails to take into consideration the differences among those participating (Curran 2000). His concept of a unitary public sphere is based on the presumption of homogeneity and the potential to arrive at an agreement. However, discussions in the public sphere may not necessarily arrive at an agreement and different social groups may have different opinions and views. In fact, critics question whether at any one point has there been a single public and consequently a single public sphere (Schudson 1992). Responding to this criticism, Livingstone & Lunt (1994) proposes an ‘oppositional public sphere’ as a solution.
Secondly, his idealistic vision of the 18th and 19th century public sphere has generated a bulk of criticism. Schudson (1992) views the idea of a public sphere of ‘rational-critical discourse’ as inadequate. In addition, Scannell (1989) argues that the most rational argument does not necessarily have to be the best solution; and instead calls for a ‘reasonable’ argument.
Further, his assumption of a sharp separation between the state and civil society may not be valid. Fraser (1989) challenges this assumption and the assumption of social equality for a well functioning public sphere. However, whether these criticisms are valid is highly debatable. The assumption of a separation between the state and the civil society is susceptible to two different interpretations depending on one’s understanding of the expression ‘civil society’ (Fraser 2007).
On the one hand, where this expression is taken to imply a privately-ordered, capitalist economy, then separating it from the state would imply defending classical liberalism (Fraser 2007). Laissez-faire capitalism would thus seem like a necessary precondition for the public sphere to function well. However, to ensure a democratic public sphere, participatory parity is vital and a necessary precondition of participatory parity is socio-economic equality.
Laissez-faire capitalism fails to provide such socio-economic equality and as such is detrimental to the public sphere (Fraser 2007). Based on this interpretation, it follows that the separation of the civil society from the state is not a necessary precondition for an ideal public sphere. To ensure socio-economic equality, there is a need to have some form of politically regulated economic reorganization and redistribution.
On the other hand, such separation may be necessary for a working public sphere. In this context, the ‘civil society’ is taken to imply the nexus of nongovernmental or rather secondary associations which are not administrative or economic (Fraser 2007). To make sense of this view, we need to recall Habermas’s definition of the liberal public sphere. The emphasis that is made in this conceptualization is that members of the bourgeois public are not state officials and that when they participate in the public sphere, they do so under no official capacity.
It follows that the public sphere is not the state but rather nongovernmental or secondary associations that can confront the state. It is precisely this separation of the state and civil society that confers an aura of independence, legitimacy and autonomy in the public sphere (Fraser 2007). Based on this interpretation, the civil society and the state should be separated for the proper functioning of the public sphere.
A further criticism relates to his argument of a rational-critical debate being replaced by mass consumption. Habermas tends to overlook the potential role that media plays in providing a platform for initiating discussions on matters of public debate (Benson 2009). He criticizes the press and mass media as distorting the public sphere by manipulating and conjuring reality. Contrary to this view, the media also plays a vital role in contributing to public debate by providing a platform for initiating public discussions and agenda setting (Benson 2009). Whilst the issue of agenda setting may seem unpopular, it is vital in public debates as without defining issues and providing a scope of limiting debate; no debate can be rational (Benson 2009).
As Scanell (1989) suggests, the media has unobtrusively contributed to public democracy. According to Scannell, mass media has played a crucial role in the democratization of everyday life by not only enabling access to information but by also representing all social groups. Echoing this argument, Keane (2000) points out, the press and mass media is the closest that the modern society can come to establishing a space for public debate on politics and other common interests.
Habermas agrees with his critiques that his approach is to some extent flawed and acknowledges that some of his arguments need revision, especially his idea of a single public sphere and a culture consuming public. Whilst acknowledging that some of his arguments are overly simplistic, he maintains that the bourgeois public sphere of the early 19th century provides an ideal model (Johnson 2009).
Given the various criticisms of Habermas’s model of public sphere, does this mean that his conceptualization should be disregardedNot at all, despite the fact the Habermas’s conceptualization of the public sphere may not provide an adequate account of modern day democracy; his work has contributed tremendously to the idea of critical theory. Furthermore, his concept of public sphere has formed the basis of discussions on democratic politics.
In his recent work, Habermas has made an attempt to address the flaws in his original conceptualization of the public sphere. He replaces his idea of a single unitary public sphere with the idea of a more differentiated and pluralistic public sphere in which radical professionals and public interest groups play a greater role by interpreting social problems and proposing solutions to these problems (Curan 2000; p.136).
Unlike other critical theorists such as Adorno and Horkheimer, Habermas seminal work is much clearer and provides a path that should have been taken. The public sphere which declined should have continued to push political and economic systems into arenas of democratic control (Raymond 1981). Habermas is, however, hopeful that such a development might still be forthcoming and is positive that gap between the public sphere and political and social reality may in future close again.
Habermas’s work has no doubt been influential. He offers a rich account about the rise, transformation and subsequent decline of the bourgeois public sphere. His theory has, however, generated a bulk of criticism especially his idea of a single public sphere, the exclusionary nature, the assumption of a sharp-separation between the state and civil society, and the idea of a public sphere of ‘rational-critical discourse’.
Further, he understates the potential pro-active role that the media can play in contributing to public democracy. The argument of the media contributing to a decline in public sphere is inadequate as it fails to capture how the media enables the society avoid ‘commercial colonization’ and more importantly, how the media may act as an important platform or force for “communicative action”.
Despite these criticisms; his conception of the public sphere has significantly contributed to the idea of critical theory and democratic politics. He conceptualizes a public sphere in which rational-critical debate is used to check illegitimate use of power and state domination; and one in which people participate in the process of deliberation.
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