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Defining the Public Sphere (in 3 Paragraphs!)

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

The Agora of the Competaliastae: Ancient Greek agoras are the classic archetype of an open and democratic public sphere (photo credits: flickr user wallyg)Having spent a considerable part of my professional and academic life thinking and writing about the public sphere, it still amazes me how nebulous this concept is, and how difficult it is to be clear about what we mean when we talk about "the public sphere." Academics write multi-volume books on this issue, and justifiably so: The public sphere is a constitutive element of democracy. Without it, citizens would not have a space in which to develop and articulate "public will," and no means to influence political decision making. As Sina Odugbemi writes in Governance Reform Under Real-World Conditions: the democratic public sphere is a "structural force in politics - a critical part of the architecture of good governance" - and good governance is crucial for the elimination of poverty.

CommGAP's motto is "Towards a New Agora" - towards a new democratic public sphere. Building a new public sphere requires that we know what we're talking about in the first place. This is, more or less surprisingly, not at all clear. There is a problem with all things "public:" public isn't tangible, it isn't locatable, it isn't manifest. "The public" is an imaginary group of people, and the public sphere is an imaginary place. It is a space constituted between the state and the private sphere of citizens, households, and private corporations. It is most of all a communicative infrastructure. This infrastructure allows the free exchange of information and ideas, deliberation on issues of public concern, the formation of public will, and the transmission of public will to official authorities. Authorities then have to be accountable for their actions, again through the communication channels of the public sphere. It is helpful - although rather libertarian - to look at the public sphere as if it were a market, the notorious "free marketplace of ideas." The goods of the public sphere are ideas, and the currency is public opinion.

Understanding the public sphere as communicative infrastructure brings us back to the role of media systems, which has been addressed several times on this blog. In our day and age, communication depends on technology. Communicative structures are to a large part (though by no means entirely) a matter of technological infrastructure, be it traditional mass media or new information technologies. If we accept that a democratic public sphere is central to good governance, development efforts need to look at media systems as an institution of the public sphere. Two-way communications between citizens and public officials constitute the public sphere, therefore we need free and independent media systems that facilitate this two-way flow of communication. Media systems for a democratic public sphere are a means for citizens to build public will, and for public officials to be accountable for their actions. Free and independent media systems are based on nonpartisan ownership and ownership regulation, transparent media legislation, and a strong journalistic profession. Promoting good governance means promoting all of the above - it means promoting free media.

Photo credit: flickr user wallyg


Submitted by francis on
This article by Oscar Bloh (from seems to me to to explain the problem in a slightly different way... Situating the problem: The rhetoric for change which follows the ending of violent conflicts focuses on reforming governance, political institutions and systems that contribute to violence. Unfortunately, strategic communication, as a driver of change is rarely placed at the center of these reform processes. Strategic communication is the active solicitation of citizens' perspectives in order to shape reform policies. It is a mechanism for active, two-way communication between the governed and the government. Years of bad governance in most African countries have left societies with negative experiences of participatory democracy. But when strategic communication mainstreams the voices of minority, groups, and this influences postively the outcomes of reform policies, perceptions of participation in governance are increased. Similarly, if institutions driving reform include more and different voices this increases trust and credibility in the institutions and the process. However, policy makers are reluctant to place strategic communication at the center of reform processes: 1.Lack of political will for radical internal reform of decision-making both in government institutions and international partners. Change is seen as something that happens to others. 2. Fear of being held accountable. If decisions that affect the lives of the people are no longer made in secret then policy makers are more easily held accountable. 3. Most institutions rolling out reform have limited capacity to develop a communication strategy. They believe that communication has taken place when they distribute press releases, organize press conferences for elite journalists, and participate in talk shows where they set the agenda. Added value of a strategic communication: Placing people at the centre of development and governance means that they need to communicate to policy makers and among themselves. Done properly strategic communications can yield the following results: • Managed expectations –The rhetoric of change, and the benefits it should yield, raise expectations which often result in anger and violence. When citizens’ expectations are well managed, they understand, appreciate and value the gradual changes that are taking place. • Ownership is engendered – Citizens in most developing countries have had little real experience of participatory governance. When they can influence the way decisions are made and hold people accountable, it deepens the democratic process and their sense of ownership. • Management of Information – In most developing countries information is spread by word of mouth. But it is often wrongly interpreted, and the chain of misinformation passes through a community. Effective communication strategies need to use the best means of reaching people in formats they understand. • Improved information coordination - A communication strategy improves coordination between those providing information for public consumption, which reduces confusion, limits the possibility of duplication, and increases the likelihood of understanding. Opportunities: In most post-conflict contexts, emerging opportunities can be leveraged to support the development and implementation of any strategic communication. One such opportunity is the increasing diversification and pluralism of the media through which alternative voices can be mainstreamed. Another is the growing popular demand for participation in the way post-conflict countries are governed. Yet another is increasing recognition among all governments of the value of integrating strategic communication in development and governance processes.

Submitted by Anne-Katrin on
Thank you, Francis, for this very insightful comment! I think this is a very valuable definition of strategic communication - although I would have used a different term. With "strategic communication" I associate targeted attempts at changing people's attitudes or behaviors. You use the term much more comprehensively, and obviously tie it to democratic practices. I would consider the strategic communication you speak of as being the form of communication that takes place in the public sphere as I understand it. So, the public sphere would provide the infrastructure for this kind of participatory communication, which is obviously closely tied to good governance and accountability. But I agree, there's a severe lack of policy making with regard to democratic communication - and I believe I can say that here at CommGAP, we're working toward increasing policy makers' awareness of the critical relevance of communication in development work, communication way beyond distributing press releases and holding press conferences. I would add one point to the three that you outline as reasons for policy makers' reluctance to focus on communication: there's the lack of political will, the fear of being held accountable, limited capacity - but there's also a lack of public will. Why would policy makers risk being held accountable if citizens don't ask for it? Promoting citizen demand is a huge challenge in development work, and increasingly development agencies realize that there's a lot of work that needs to be done in this area.

Submitted by jayden on

Do you think the idea of a public sphere
to which everyone can contribute on
equal terms is possible or simply fanatasy? why

Submitted by Glen Hombsch on

Do you think the public sphere now has another dimension and that the media has become the next 'arm' of government ?

Submitted by Hessy on

Do you believe that talk radio holds true to the ideals of Habermas's public sphere or does another medium live up to his ideals more fully?

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