The public sphere

The current issue of Social Science History is devoted to a series of articles in honor of Charles Tilly (link), around the general theme of the “public sphere” (the theme of the Social Science History Association annual meeting in 2007). Tilly was an active presence in the Social Science History Association, and this issue recognizes Tilly’s originality and influence.  The volume contains contributions by several distinguished historical sociologists, including Tilly, Andreas Koller, Craig Calhoun, Andrew Abbott, and Elisabeth Clemens.

The concept of the public sphere isn’t a subject to which Tilly gave a lot of explicit attention; in fact, there is very little research on the social reality of the public sphere within comparative historical sociology quite generally.  The most directly relevant discussion of some of these topics in Tilly’s work probably occurs in his 2007 book, Democracy.  But the topic is ripe for consideration by comparative and historical sociologists, and for this reason the current SSH issue is a welcome start.

Andreas Koller formulates the general research question about the public sphere in his introductory essay in these terms:

Despite its central relevance for the members of modern societies for determining the course of their own history through reasoned debate and public choice, the study of the public sphere is not an integrated research field. … This introduction seeks to provide an overview of analytic and historical dimensions that enables one to decipher a number of discussions that are spread out over many disciplines and often proceed in multiple disciplinary terminologies.  Such a quest for an integrative framework is a necessary condition for well-defined comparative and historical research. (262-63)

Before a comparative historical sociologist could begin to investigate a phenomenon such as the “public sphere,” it is necessary to have a preliminary conception of what we are talking about.  As Koller points out, most discussions of the concept begin with the ur-text in the study of the public sphere: Jurgen Habermas’s 1962 book, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society.  Here are some preliminary descriptions of the public sphere offered by several of the contributors to this special issue of SSH:

Andreas Koller: [The public sphere] refers to a public of speaker(s) and audience that organizes itself and determines its own future by the force of the better argument, and it refers to its object, the public good. (Koller, 263)

 Charles Tilly: No one has so far developed crisp measures of the public sphere’s expansion and consolidation in one regime or another.  In that regard, comparative-historical research faces gigantic conceptual, technical, and empirical challenges.  But surely one indicator worth tracing is change in the frequency and character of gatherings in which people make collective claims on others, including public authorities. (Tilly, 292)

Craig Calhoun: It is instructive to situate the idea of the public sphere in this context.  This gives the influential account of Jurgen Habermas its central pathos: the public sphere arises as part of civil society, incorporating adults who have gained maturity and intellectual autonomy in another of its parts, the family.  It is oriented to forming rational-critical opinion on matters of universal interest to citizens, and through this to informing state policy. But it is debased and corrupted when the state-society division collapses amid bureaucratization, organized interest-group politics, and mass society in the twentieth century. (Calhoun, 302)

Craig Calhoun: The notion of the political public sphere centered on the idea that private persons might come together through reasoned communication to consider public issues and inform public policy. (Calhoun, 303)

Andrew Abbott: In this article I take this last as my definition of public spheres: public spheres are symbolic spaces within which a group’s normative affairs are discussed in some sense for themselves…. So I shall take public spheres as an empirical possibility while making no detailed claims about their characteristics. (Abbott, 338)

Elisabeth Clemens: At the core of the philosophical legacy of the Enlightenment lies a vision of rational individuals governing themselves through collective deliberation.  By means of critical discourse, self-interested or private individuals reflect on common concerns and discover the nature of the public good, justice, and truth. (Clemens, 374)

What these snippets have in common is the idea of a public consisting of deliberative individuals engaging in debate over policies and legislation, in relation to conflicting ideas of the public good. (There is an evident connection between this definition and Rousseau’s theories of the general will; link.) There is the idea here that a collectivity can arrive at a publicly shared conception of its good, through open and public debate.  And, in common with theorists of deliberative democracy, there is the idea that public debate can transform individual citizens’ conceptions of themselves and the public good.  So debate is not merely expressive of current opinions and preferences; it is potentially transformative.

These ideas are expressed in the language of political philosophy and the theory of democracy.  But the subject matter becomes an object of study for sociologists when we realize that each aspect of the definition refers to a social reality that is highly variable across time, space, and culture.  So it is an empirical question, to consider to what extent Qing China, pre-revolutionary Iran, or medieval England had social realities that corresponded to any of these categories: the public intellectual, the engaged citizen, public debate, or public policy.  Was there a Qing public? Were matters of common concern debated openly or publicly, or were they decided behind closed doors by an Imperial bureaucracy?  Did subjects of the Qing state regard themselves as public individuals?

Tilly’s essay in this volume focuses on one aspect of this sociological topic: to what extent did new forms of public debate and agitation begin to emerge in England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries?  He treats this as an empirical matter:

My collaborators and I gathered the evidence to examine how the development of British capitalism, transformation of the British state, and popular political struggle itself shaped changes in the ways that ordinary Britons made collecdtive claims — changes in their repertoires of contention. (292)

He finds that there was a marked increase in the frequency of contentious gatherings, which he attributes to a rise in mass-based organizations and a mass-based public media.  (Much of this research is presented in his more extensive contribution to Social Movements and Networks: Relational Approaches to Collective Action, “Contentious Connections in Great Britain, Britain, 1828-34”, with Lesley Wood.)

So this is one empirical approach that a comparative historical sociologist could take to the problem of trying to assess the scope and growth of the public sphere.  A very different approach is offered by Andrew Abbott in his contribution to the SSH volume, “Pragmatic Sociology and the Public Sphere: The Case of Charles Richmond Henderson.”  Abbott moves from meso to micro in this piece.  He too counts things in order to assess the scope of the public sphere.  But in this case, what is counted is appearances in the Chicago Tribune.  Abbott attempts to gauge Charles Richmond Henderson’s prominence in the public sphere by counting and classifying Henderson’s presence in Chicago’s leading newspaper.  How frequently does Henderson’s name appear in the Tribune, in comparison to other prominent professors?

Henderson was chaplain and professor of sociology at the University of Chicago between 1892 and 1915, and it turns out that he had a remarkably high level of visibility in the Tribune.  He was a prominent public figure.  Abbott attempts to make sense of the public persona of Anderson through a brief intellectual and professional biography of the man; and he tries to arrive at some judgments about the causes and impact of his prominence.  “Over his quarter century at the University of Chicago, Henderson became one of Chicago’s and even America’s most visible reform figures” (342).  And much of his prominence was deliberate: Henderson sought out opportunities for bringing his convictions to the attention of a broader public than the university.  Clubs and conferences were a frequent venue; Henderson was deeply interested in bringing his ideas to the public through these venues.  And Abbott makes the important point that Chicago consisted, not of one public, but of an archipelago of publics: business elites, religious communities, immigrant communities, professional groups, … (351).

Both of these empirical studies of certain aspects of the public sphere are intriguing and engaging.  Taken as a whole, the SSH volume provides a diverse palette of work, and it plainly does no more than scratch the surface of the kinds of sociological research that are suggested by the topic of the public sphere.  Abbott, Calhoun, Tilly, and the other contributors give an intriguing sense of the kinds of investigations that can be undertaken; there is much work to do in this area.  Consider this variety of questions that need to be posed about the public sphere from a comparative sociology point of view:

  • How did the public sphere evolve in England between 1600 and 1900?
  • How does the public sphere differ in France, Germany, and England?
  • Did China have a public sphere in the late Imperial period?
  • What are some important differences in repertoire and performance within the public spheres of different countries and periods?
  • How do intellectuals participate in the public sphere in different times and places?
  • What role does organized public protest play in the public sphere?

(The photo above captures two historical ends of the idea of the public sphere: the polis and the protest. It captures a major protest in Athens following the 2009 financial crisis of the Greek state.)


4 responses

  1. According to Chinese historians, in the imperial time of China there were all kinds of public sphere at different societal levels. What interests me is that all kinds of public activities at lower levels have high autonomy, especially at the village and county levels. After foundation of P. R. China, the local autonomy has been reduced sharply by copying the administrative system of Soviet Union. From 1980s, the local autonomy is recovering, especially in the past ten years. This kind of traditional autonomy is localized Chinese democracy. The central government of China is learning how to balance the central political power and the local autonomy by giving more and more decision power to local government. If this learning is going well, Chinese society can achieve both freedom and order.

  2. I'm interested in how you'd distinguish between public sphere and civil society and whether civil society is a more flexible concept in terms of application to different historical societies. Lovely blog, very brain-yummy.

  3. Dan — thanks for the comment. I would distinguish civil society from the public sphere along these lines: civil society is the "sphere" of individual activity, private associations, and the full range of voluntary and self-interested transactions. The public sphere, as indicated in the posting, is a place for citizens; persons with an interest in the common good. It is a locus for debate and consideration of the public good. I'm thinking of the distinction both Marx and Rousseau seem to have in mind in distinguishing between bourgeois and citoyen.

  4. Siyuan — thanks. This is an interesting observation about imperial China; I would paraphrase your point by saying that there were officials, literati, and involved elites who constituted a "public" at various levels of society; without asserting that there was a mass public that included a significant fraction of the society.

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