The notion of the “public sphere” is useful worldwide to consider how citizens can and do articulate demands to the market or to states. The public sphere is generally conceived as a place (figurative or literal) in which citizens can share information, debate issues and opinions, and restrain the interests of the powerful elite. This space is critical to the formation of public will and the transmission of it to official authorities.
In contrast, the Panopticon is a design for a prison or jail which allows watchmen to observe all inmates at all times without the inmates knowing whether they are being observed or not. The idea has been used to discuss online privacy, as individuals are often unaware of how governments and companies collect and use the information they gather about them online. Moreover, the revelation that governments and companies work together to “spy” on citizens, as revealed by Edward Snowden revived the concern that a modern-day panopticon might be possible.
But these concepts raise another important question: How can the public sphere, which aims to limit excess power, continue to function if the state is monitoring citizen activity? Much of the information that is collected and tracked online is willingly shared by individuals as they search the internet, use mobile apps, and contact friends and family. This activity is vital to the future of a public sphere around the world, but it also allows governments and companies to intrude in our private lives.
Silvio Waisbord explores these two evergreen, yet very immediate concerns. He argues that while digital technologies have improved the capacities of states and companies to track human activity, digital media can also be used for democratic purposes.
- Jürgen Habermas, a German sociologist and philosopher whose work focuses on the political domain and rationality. He is best known for his theories on communicative rationality and the public sphere. Associated with the Frankfurt School, his work also focuses on the foundations of critical social theory, the analysis of advanced capitalistic societies and democracy, human freedom within modern society, the rule of law in a critical social-evolutionary context, and contemporary politics-- particularly German politics.
Mike Edwards has just written a 3rd edition of his book ‘Civil Society’. It’s a 130 page primer, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy reading. I found some of the conceptual stuff on different understandings of civil society pretty hard going, but was repaid with some really interesting and innovative systems thinking, leading to what I think are some novel suggestions for how NGOs and donors should/shouldn’t try to support civil society in developing countries.
Edwards sets out some fairly arcane (to me anyway) debates, identifying three schools of thought that see CS as
- ‘Associational life’ that builds trust and social capital (de Toqueville, Robert Puttnam, etc)
- The Good Society: a good thing in itself
- A protagonist in the public sphere, incubating debates that will eventually turn into laws and policies (think tobacco campaigners, or women’s rights)
"'What to do' depends on what one understands civil society to be. Devotees of associational life will focus on filling in the gaps and disconnections in the civil society ecosystem, promoting volunteering and voluntary action, securing an “enabling environment” that privileges NGOs and other civic organizations through tax breaks, and protecting them from undue interference through laws and regulations that guarantee freedom of association" (pg. 108)
"Believers in the good society will focus on building positive interactions between institutions in government, the market and the voluntary sector around common goals such as poverty reduction, human rights and deep democracy" (pg. 108)
"Supporters of civil society as the public sphere will focus on promoting access to, and independence for, the structures of communication, extending the paths and meeting grounds that facilitate public deliberation and building the capacities that citizens require to engage with each other across their private boundaries" (pg. 108)
Unsurprisingly, Edwards advocates a synthesis of all three, but then he gets interesting.
The year that is ending in two weeks has exhibited two sobering characteristics. First, it has been marked by apocalyptic violence (the massacre of school children in Peshawar, Pakistan being the latest outrage). Second, it has been marked by pressures on communication freedom, and the relentless squeezing of civic spaces. The violence we all know about; for it seems to be kicking off everywhere. But the causes are legion; the politics in each case is bewilderingly complex. So, we’ll leave these alone and hope for the best. But we might usefully reflect, as the year closes, on what is happening with national public spheres and the emerging global public sphere.
There is a narrative of hope and freedom about the global communication context. That narrative celebrates the mobile wave and the astounding spread of information and communication technologies. It talks about how wonderful all this is for voice, for enlightenment, for freedom. Look, we are told, see all those cool young kids with their fancy gadgets, social media skills, and their ability to launch collective action eruptions, even revolutions! See how admirable and hopeful all this is, we are told. And, yes, events have often backed up the fevered hopes and dreams, even this year. Yet, as the year ends, the overwhelming sense one gets is that dark and powerful forces are counterattacking. They are certainly not on the ropes. Let’s look at the particulars:
I hope you have been fortunate enough to meet a few of these. They live amongst us, but they are really an archetypal category: The Outsider. Our settled views on the great issues of the day, our rules and norms, our codes of conduct, all these things annoy them. They mock us. They dispense rudeness with great liberality. They are stubborn, self-willed and ferociously argumentative. They dress as they please. They behave as they please. They dance to the rhythms of drums that the rest of us cannot hear. They annoy, even madden us; yet, every healthy community needs them; every truly diverse and vigorous public sphere needs them, as well.
Cranks are eccentrics. They are capricious in behavior or appearance. And they are almost always contrarians: whatever the majority opinion is, they are against it. Loudly. Vehemently. Yet there is one fundamental reason why we should not only tolerate but celebrate the cranks and contrarians in our midst: every major shift in public opinion started as a view propagated by a few bloody minded contrarians, boldly, even recklessly, taking on the received or conventional wisdom of the day. We often credit huge social movements for a lot of the progress we have made as human beings, but before the social movements formed crucial path-clearing work was done by tough, rock-ribbed eccentrics and contrarians.
The possibility of rational debate and discussion in human affairs remains a stubborn and persistent ideal. This is, I suspect, mainly because we have a lot riding on it. Without the possibility of rational debate and discussion, it would be close to impossible to work in groups, and for the groups to be productive, to get stuff done. Deliberative processes would also be unworkable; and would in fact not exist. Parliaments and similar legislative assemblies – allegedly the great deliberative forums of liberal constitutional democracy – would not function without some attempt to promote rational debate and discussion. Democracy itself celebrates the ideal. The whole idea of a public sphere rests on the notion that citizens can meet in the virtual public square-- constituted today by the mass media system in each country– and exchange views on the great public issues of the day, from which process-informed public opinion might emerge, and so on.
Yet, the ideal of rational debate and discussion requires (a) certain personal disciplines, and these disciplines are not easy to practice; and (b) personality traits that are not evenly distributed within any population.
Far too many of the people and organizations working on strengthening media systems in developing countries focus on how to secure funding from donors, preponderantly donors in the West; and they still mostly do the easy stuff, like organizing training seminars for journalists. Too few of them are taking on the real challenges of bedeviling media systems in many transition countries and far less developed ones.
When you focus on donors you have to do what donors are willing to pay for, reality be damned. And when you focus on donors, you have to worry about short term ‘results’, the ‘evidence of impact’ and so on. It is all too tempting to do only what is easy to count and measure. And donor priorities change all the time: the ministers change, the officials change, the lingo changes, the demands change. It is almost always a dizzying ride. Yet the problems facing the media in developing countries, the lacks that prevent them from playing their classic roles as watchdogs, public forums and agenda-setters, are persistent and long-term. Their rhythm is not that of fickle donors.
Our Top Ten Blog Posts by Readership in 2012
Originally published on April 4, 2012
Cities are often associated with mixed emotions. They can sometimes make us feel insecure, disconnected and lonely, even in a crowd; while, in other moments, they provide the setting for the happiest events in our lives.
Whether we are conscious of it or not, urban spaces have a huge impact on how people participate in public life. Regular readers of this blog know that the original concept of the public sphere originates from the agora in ancient Greek city-states. The agora was a physical place where people gathered to deliberate and exchange their opinions – a true marketplace of ideas. The modern public sphere has now shifted more into the virtual realm, through various technologies and social media.
- The World Region
- Urban Development
- Urban Spaces
- Urban Social Movement
- Urban Communities
- Urban Activism
- Sustainable Communities
- Public Sphere
- Neighborhood Development
- community participation
- Civic Engagement
- Civic Duties
- Citizen Participation
- Cities and Civic Engagement
As a rule, when intellectuals contribute to public debate on any issue of public concern in any country, it is an entirely wholesome development, and one deserving every encouragement. That is truer if the intellectuals involved know how to communicate even the most abstruse area of knowledge vividly, clearly, compellingly. For, when we say we desire ‘informed public opinion’, one of the best ways of bringing that about is by encouraging well-trained minds on any subject relevant to a public policy question of general concern to help their fellow-citizens by throwing a bright light on the subject. That is why news and current affairs editors everywhere try to maintain a roster of experts that can be called upon to comment on issues occasioning public controversy.