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The 'Public Sphere' and Public Life.

The notion of a ‘public sphere’, developed in the work of Jürgen Habermas (1974), is an important touchstone for social theorists of democracy and public life.   It has given rise to a critical literature that engages with the concept of a ‘public sphere’ and seeks to assess its historical validity and contemporary relevance. This discussion has developed parallel to wider debates on the public/private distinction, the interrelationship between the public realm and private life , and the organization of public and private spaces.  The present review will group the literature in terms of approach and delineate common points of analysis and areas of contestation, moving onto a detailed analysis of selected texts that can offer guidance for future research on the contemporary utility of the concept of the ‘public sphere’.

The literature on the public sphere and related issues of defining the ‘public’ and ‘private’ can be grouped into several different approaches. Habermas’ (1974) discussion of the structural transformation of the public sphere is a benchmark of the field and has heavily influenced the work of Fraser (1992, 1998, 2007) whose idea of ‘counterpublics’  breaks with Habermas’ original conception of the bourgeois public sphere, and it also influenced Calhoun (1998)  on the public sphere and the democratic potential of the internet.  However, the Habermasian conception of the public sphere is only one approach to the problem of public life and public order. Parallel to this literature, Silver’s (1990, p. 1481) analysis of 18th Century social theory probes the relationship between commercial enterprise and the opening up space for social bonds of “natural sympathy”. Goheen (1998) engages with the issue of spatial organization in contemporary cities and the impact this has on public life. The issue of spatial organization is not systematically dealt with in the work of Habermas (1974); however it is highlighted both by Calhoun (1998) and Sennett (1977) as important influence on public life.  Sennett (2003) has attempted to provide clarification of this literature, arguing that contemporary social theory on the public sphere can be defined by its relationship to Georg Simmel’s The Metropolis and Mental Life, which advanced the notion that in cities individuals adopt a position of indifference in response to overstimulation, noting  the impersonality that developed in response to overstimulation and constituted a “mask of rationality”,  Sennett argues that  this transformation of the individual personality by the spatial organization of public space is crucial to understanding the balance of contemporary public and private life (Sennett, 2003, p. 380).   

Sennett (2003) argues that Habermas’ conception of the public sphere and related scholarship can be linked to Simmel’s attempt to find the roots of rationality in civil society and a second tradition can be discerned that stems from Simmel which emphasises the performative nature of contemporary public life.  Sennett (2003) places his own work in this tradition, particularly The Fall of Public Man (Sennett, 1977),   and highlights the contributions of Erving Goffman's work focused on the self-dramatization of individual difference and the theatricality of public life.  Thus, Goffman’s (1963, 1971) ethnographic work on social rules and face-to-face interaction is an important benchmark for discussions of social life and the ‘public’ dimension of all interpersonal interaction.  Breaking from these two traditions outlined by Sennett (2003), segments of the literature interrogate the notion of ‘public’ and ‘private’ and the instability of these categories.  Hansen’s (1997) analysis of women’s lives in 19th century America, demonstrates that the conception of public and domestic spheres is not borne out by the evidence of women’s lives that are difficult to categorize in the dichotomous terms of public and private. Weintaub (1997) argued that the conceptual language of ‘public’ and ‘private’ can often become quite confused and delineated four major organizing principles of the ‘public/private’ distinction. The literature on the public sphere and related issues has been grouped; the first section of the literature grouped around Habermas (1974), the second grouped around Sennett (1977, 2003) and Goffman (1963, 1972) and a third that interrogate the distinction between private and public (Weintaub 1997,  Hansen, 1997).   The detailed analyses of selected text draw on these three categories. 

Habermas’ (1974, p. 49) conceptualization of the ‘public sphere’ concerned “a realm of our social life in which something approaching public opinion can be formed”, constituting an intermediate zone between society and the state. Therefore, Habermas (1974, p. 49) argues, a “portion of the public sphere comes into being in every conversation in which private individuals assemble to form a public body”.  The historical emergence of the public sphere is linked to the rise of the bourgeoisie and the struggle against monarchical absolutism that presented power before the people and reserved deliberative functions within its own apparatus.  Habermas (1974) linked the proliferation of political clubs, societies and journals in the 18th century with the burgeoning public sphere.  In his analysis of 18th century social theory, Silver (1990), explores the conception of friendships put forward by members of the Scottish Enlightenment. In their view, commercial relationship provided the basis for friendships of “natural sympathy” (Silver, 1990, p. 1480).  This parallels Habermas’ notion that the public sphere was constituted by ‘private individuals’ outside of monarchical authority, in a similar way, friendship was removed from bonds of feudal obligation.  However, the importance of this a basis for ‘public life’ can be questioned – particularly from the viewpoints of Sennett (1997) and Goffman (1971, 1963).

Fraser (1992, p. 109) argued that Habermas’ conception of the public sphere, while deeply flawed in many respects, is crucial for understanding the “limits of democracy in late-capitalist societies”.   Fraser (1992, 116) criticizes Habermas’ notion of the public sphere as a unitary institution of bourgeois society and develops the notion of subaltern “counterpublics” that are discursive zones in which non-elites form opinions on aspects of social life.  These ‘counterpublics” can be linked in with Calhoun's (1998) discussion of social enclaves and the internet, which have a strong sense of community but break with Habermas’ unitary concept of the public sphere.  With the advent of the internet, Habermas saw the potential for a new inclusive public sphere, however, as Calhoun (1998) has noted, the internet is controlled by many of the same interests that mediate non-internet based forms of communication. 

Sennett (1997, 2003) self-consciously defined his work on the contradistinction to the tradition of scholarship emblematic of Habermas’ work on the public sphere.   To exemplify this, Sennett (2003) outlines the different approaches taken to the analysis of 18th century coffee houses.  During the 18th century, coffee house were sites of social interaction and Habermas emphasised their importance for the communication of information among private individual in a public body,  sites for the circulation of newspapers and journals, while Sennett emphasised the performance of  public roles and the subtle cues that are required to have your information accepted (Sennett, 2003).  This difference of emphasise can be reconciled, however, Sennett (1977, p. 3) postulated the ‘fall of public man’ were “public life has also become a matter of formal obligation. Most citizens approach their dealing with the state in a spirit of resigned acquiescence” during the period of which Habermas described the emergence of a public sphere.  

Goffman’s (1971) analysis of public life proceeded from ethnographic studies of face-to-face interaction and therefore can be conceptualized as a micro-foundation for macro-sociological concepts such as the public sphere.  However, Goffman’s (1963, 1971) conception of ‘public life’ and ‘public order’ is much broader than the definition of ‘public’ employed in the Habermasian conception of the public sphere.  Social interaction, two individuals passing each other on the street, is a public act.  For Goffman (1971, p. 40), public order is founded on individual’s “management of co-presence” according to a series of “ground rules” that people preform on a daily basis.   Thus, as Weintaub (1997, p. 2) describes it, Goffman’s Relations in Public differentiates between the public world of “sociability” and the “privacy of the individual self”.  Sennett (1977) argues that the public realm has been devalued in an era in which personality is directed inwardly towards concerns of selfhood. The boundary between public and private, and the relative weight of each in contemporary society is highly contentious.

Weintaub (1997, p. 7) conceptualized four paradigms that distinguish between public and private distinction; 1) the liberal-economic model, 2) republican-virtue, 3) dramaturgical and 4) feminist distinction between the family and the wider political and economic sphere.   Weintaub (1997) demonstrated that the private/public distinction, while analytically useful, is socially constructed by historical actors on an ideological and discursive field and therefore difficult to sustain on an empirical level.  By problematizing this distinction,  Weintaub’s (1997) analysis of the social construction of the ‘public’/’private’ distinction is important to formulations of research questions on the continued relevance of the ‘public’ sphere in contemporary life.  

The literature on the public sphere and related issues of public/private distinction, the interrelationship between the public realm and private life, and the organization of public and private spaces is broad and encompasses varied interpretations of fundamental categories of analysis.  The most pressing issue in contemporary society and the continued relevance of the public sphere is: to what extend does the internet provide the basis for a new public sphere?  Habermas’ (1974) notion of the public sphere is foundational, however other important developments in this field may be traced to critical investigations of this concept by  Fraser (1992) and her notion of ‘counterpublics’ and Calhoun’s (1998) work on the democratic potential of the internet. This literature highlights that the contemporary ‘public sphere’ cannot be thought of in unitary terms and that the internet is not effective without independent social networks.  The contrary tradition represented by Sennett (1977, 2003) and Goffman (1963, 1971) tactfully used can broaden the range of analysis and the dramaturgical aspects of social interaction in the public realm.  Weintaub (1997) outlined the various interpretations of the public/private distinction operating in society, and therefore the contested nature of the division and the conceptual confusion that surrounds it which any future study of the public sphere would have to contend.   Thus, the wide range of literature provides a basis from which to ask the question: to what extent does the internet provide the basis for a new public sphere? 

Written by Mathew Toll.


Calhoun, C. (1998) “ Community Without Propinquity Revisited:Communications Technology and The Transformations of the Urban Public Sphere”, Sociological Inquiry, 68,3,pp.373-397

Fraser, N. (1992) ‚”Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy”.‛ Pp. 109-142 in Habermas and the Public Sphere, edited by Calhoun, Craig. Cambridge (MA)/London: MIT Press.

Fraser,  N. (2007) “On the Legitimacy and Efficacy of Public Opinion in a PostWestphalian World, Transnationalizing the Public Sphere”, Theory Culture Society, 24: pp. 7-30.
Fraser,  N. (1998)”Sex Lies and the Public Sphere: Reflections on the confirmation of Clarence Thomas Feminism”, the public and the private, Joan B. Landes (ed.) Oxford ;New York : Oxford University Press, pp.314-337.

Goffman,E. (1963)Behaviour in Public Places: Notes on the Social Organization of Gatherings, Free Press, New York.

Goffman, E. (1971) Relations in Public: Microstudies of the public order, Harper and Rowe, New York.

Goheen,Peter(1998)”Public Space and the Geography of the Modern City”, Progress in
Human Geography, 22:479-496.

Habermas, J.( 1974), “The Public Sphere: An Encyclopaedia Article”, New German Critique, No. 3, pp 49-55.

Hansen, Karen V. (1997) “Rediscovering the Social Visiting Practices in Antebellum New England”, in Public and Private in Thought and Practice: perspectives on a grand dichotomy eds. Weintraub, J. And Kumar,K, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp.268-301.

Sennett, R. (1977) The Fall of Public Man. New York: Knopf.

Sennett, Richard (2003) “Reflections on The Public Realm” in (Gary Bridge and Sophie Watson (eds.) A Companion to the City , Blackwell Publishing, Malden MA.

Silver, Allan (1990) ‚”Friendship in Commercial Society: Eighteenth-Century Social Theory and Modern Sociology”, The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 95, No. 6 (May, 1990), pp. 1474-1504.

Weintraub, Jeff, (1997) “The Theory and Politics of the Public Private Distinction”, Weintraub, J. And Kumar, K, (eds.) Public and Private in Thought and Practice: perspectives on a grand dichotomy, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp.1-42.


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