What did habermas mean by the "public sphere"?

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What did Habermas mean by the Public Sphere? Is this concept at all useful for understanding the role of the mass media in contemporary society?

Jurgen Habermas by many is considered the most influential thinker in Germany; his ideas of the "public sphere" were developed in the enlightenment era of the eighteenth century and were considered revolutionary. These ideas in some parts of the world are still highly regarded and have become an integral part of the way in which some societies understand themselves.

Habermas' primary goal was to develop a theory of communication rooted in a concept of an "ideal speech situation".

In this essay I will discuss exactly what the "public sphere" is (also known as the "ideal speech community") and its usefulness in understanding the role of the mass media in contemporary society.

"All humans are created equal and should have equal rights in society; governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, and those governed therefore have the right to change the government if they so wish."

(The First Amendment to the US Constitution, 1971)

This is part of the opening paragraph of what we know as the bill of rights, which is in summary about freedom, of religion of expression and of speech, to name a few. The 'Social space' where these rights are openly exercised is where 'The public sphere' can be found. This is not only where communication and congregation of all equal human beings takes place, but is also where governments are able to be monitored in terms of their actions towards securing the life, liberty and happiness of the people.

For Habermas the Public sphere was a space in society where individuals were free to have open discussions unrestricted and free from the pressures imposed by dominant political systems and also from the interests of the state. The public sphere was a forum where individuals were able to freely express their views with one another on matters of general interest without any intimidation.

The public sphere was not about personal matters but matters of general interest, which directly effected decision-making. What was under discussion were issues on political problems, as well as issues about society and culture.

"The public sphere can be seen as a map or model of modern society and is a useful yardstick by which the quality of existing democracies can be measured" (Gripsrud,2002.228).

What Habermas wanted to achieve by the "ideal speech community" was the opposite to the simple social pyramid structure so often portrayed by aristocrats such as King Louis XIV's i.e. powerful kings and nobles at the top and masses of powerless people at the bottom.

Habermas describes the formation of society through the use of different spheres. In the cultural public sphere, women, servants and all other dependent groupings of people were allowed to take part in some measure. In the political sphere however this was not the case. Much like today's society education and property were criterions for entering this sphere. The justification for such standards were that those who were financially stable were far "harder to bribe" and so could make honest and informed choices. When applying this to modern society we know that these justifications would only lead to the more financially stable having more power, and the poorer being segregated, which is arguably the state of our government at present.

Habermas argues "only after the suffrage of both men and women universally of all social statuses (which in most cases happened way into the twentieth century)were adults recognised as independent subjects". (Habermas, 1989,49),now creditable to partake in the forum of the public sphere.

It was this idea of independent subjects that the idea of the democratic public sphere rested. Discussions in the public sphere were to aim for consensus. The principles of the public sphere were mainly the bourgeoisie's understanding of itself,...
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