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Public Sphere

Controversies, Influence, Bibliography

The term public sphere is the English translation of the German term Öffentlichkeit. This term's significance in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century stems initially from its use in Jürgen Habermas's Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit (The structural transformation of the public sphere) in 1962. In spite of its foreign origin, the term public sphere actually represented an attempt to more adequately articulate those aspects of Anglo-American liberal culture associated with the formation of public opinion and popular sovereignty. The term Öffentlichkeit, which literally translates as "public-ness," can be taken to communicate two interconnected sets of meaning, one set involving the notion of "the public" as an actual physical entity, and a second set involving the concept of "publicity" or "openness." (This dual aspect is also found in the Russian glasnost.) Hence the term is meant to imply not merely the intellectual exchange present in the notion of a "marketplace of ideas" but also the embodied process of forming otherwise private people into a public via various means of communication. Yet the term connotes not simply the physically existing public but rather the radically democratic openness implicit in public discourse. The ambiguity inherent in the term public sphere enables it to encompass both the rationality implied by open discourse and the sovereignty associated with an actual public.

The public sphere is neither merely the public nor simply the conditions of equality and universal access that permit the free exchange of ideas; it also encompasses the actual process through which private individuals come together to form public opinion. The notion that individuals are "private" is meant to indicate that rank or status should have no standing in the formation of public opinion. What makes an opinion "public" is not merely the accident of its popularity but also its accessibility and ability to withstand public scrutiny. The process through which private individuals come together as a public in the generation of public opinion involves achieving a critical distance from rank, status, or mere popularity in the assessment of opinion—in practice oftentimes accomplished through the private consumption of commodities (pamphlets, books, or programs) produced for the public market.

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