In 1964, German philosopher Jürgen Habermas defined the public sphere as “a realm of our social life in which something approaching public opinion can be formed” (Habermas, 1974, p. 51). Apart from this, he states that public sphere is the bridge that connects society and state (Soules, 2007). Because of the public sphere, individuals can congregate, decide what they need from the state, and then directly express the concerns to the state. The concept of the public sphere evolved in Europe during the 18th Century. During this time the bourgeois, which consisted of white males, was the creator of public opinion (Habermas, 1974, p. 51).
Since 1964, there have been a numerous amount of critiques on Habermas’ explanation of the public sphere. In his explanation, Habermas writes that the public sphere can be accessed by any and all individuals that wish to be a part of it (Fraser, 1990, p.63). The idea of equality amongst all people in the public sphere was and is not true. When writing about Habermas’ explanation of the public sphere and the bourgeois, theorist Nancy Fraser states “Women of all classes and ethnicities were excluded from official political participation precisely on the basis of ascribed gender status” (Fraser, 1990, p.63). Apart from the division of gender, people of different races were not given the opportunity to voice their concerns in the public sphere as well (Fraser, 1990, p.63).
Fraser also writes about the idea of “counterpublics” (Budarick, 2016, p.12). Counterpublics are created by a group of people who are deemed as a “minority” in their society (Budarick, 2016, p.12). They can be described as “relatively independent publics within which whey [minority groups] are able to speak their own language and, through deliberation, construct their own terms and articulate their own desires and needs” (Budarick, 2016, p.12). Counterpublics are created as a reaction to minority groups being excluded from the dominant public sphere that is rooted in patriarchy and white supremacy (Fraser, 1990, p.67).
In the 20th century, a feminist counterpublic emerged. In this counterpublic there were feminist publishing companies, conventions, research centers, academic programs, and local meeting places (Fraser, 1990, p.67). Fraser states that due to the feminist counterpulic, women have invented “new terms for describing social reality, including ‘sexism,’ ‘the double shift,’ ‘sexual harassment,’ ‘marital,’ ‘date,’ and ‘acquaintance rape.’” The creation of the feminist counterpublic gave women the opportunity to voice their needs to the state despite their “disadvantage in official public spheres” (Fraser, 1990, p.67)
Another, more modern example of a counterpublic is the Black Lives Matter movement. Black Lives Matter aspires to “build local power and to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes” (“About,” n.d.). The counterpublic was created in 2013 due to the acquittal of the murderer of a black, unarmed teenage boy (“Herstory,” n.d.). The movement is considered a counterpublic because the opinion of the public sphere is that there is not a problem in the way black citizens are treated by government forces. The counterpublic’s views, which oppose from those of the public sphere, are what make the Black Lives Matter movement so influential. Like the feminist counterpublic, the Black Lives Matter movement gives a minority group the opportunity to vocalize their needs to the state.
About. (n.d.). Retrieved from Black Lives Matter website: https://blacklivesmatter.com/about/
Budarick, J. (2016). The elasticity of the public sphere: Expansion, contradiction, and ‘other’ media. In M. Griffiths & K. Barbour (Eds.), Making Publics, Making Places (pp. 9-26). Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.20851/j.ctt1t304qd.7
Fraser, N. (1990). Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy. Social Text, 25/26, 56-80. https://doi.org/10.2307/466240
Habermas, J. (1974). The Public Sphere: An Encyclopedia Article (1964). New German Critique, 49-55. https://doi.org/10.2307/487737
Herstory. (n.d.). Retrieved from Black Lives Matter website: https://blacklivesmatter.com/about/herstory/
Soules, M., Dr. (2007). Jürgen Habermas And The Public Sphere. Retrieved from Media-Studies.ca website: http://www.media-studies.ca/articles/habermas.htm
Image Attribution: Image #1: this image t is in the Public Domain; Image #2: “Dimilitarize the Police, Black Lives Matter” by Johnny Silvercloud is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
Written by Sophie Polovoy, 2017