In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Public Sphere

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Transnational Public Spheres

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Communication Public Sphere
Hartmut Wessler, Rainer Freudenthaler
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0030


The “public sphere” is generally conceived as the social space in which different opinions are expressed, problems of general concern are discussed, and collective solutions are developed communicatively. Thus, the public sphere is the central arena for societal communication. In large-scale societies, mass media and, more recently, online network media support and sustain communication in the public sphere. The English term “public sphere” is a translation of the German öffentlichkeit. The term translates into two related terms: “the public,” or the collective of speakers and listeners present in the public sphere, and “publicness,” or the state of being publicly visible and subject to scrutiny by the public. In communication studies, the concept of the public sphere has been applied to political as well as cultural communication. The term carries both a descriptive and a normative connotation. Normative theories of the public sphere usually specify ideal characteristics of public communication, as well as conditions conducive to their realization, and help to evaluate critically existing communication. The most prominent normative theorist of the public sphere is German social theorist Jürgen Habermas (born in 1929) whose work has inspired a long-lasting and controversial debate in communication studies and beyond.

General Overviews

Modern research on the public sphere was sparked by the German social theorist Jürgen Habermas’s seminal study, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (Habermas 1989), published in German in 1962 and translated into English, rather belatedly, in 1989. In this volume, Habermas put forward his now-famous argument about the alleged demise of the public sphere, as it sunk from the level of critical discourse in the 19th century to merely affirmative publicity in the 20th century. The reception of the study in the English-speaking world is reflected in Craig Calhoun’s Habermas and the Public Sphere (Calhoun 1992), a collection of critical essays by leading US and UK authors. At the end of this volume, in his “Further Reflections on the Public Sphere,” Habermas offers far-reaching revisions of his original argument, acknowledging a number of his critics while holding on to his critical-normative perspective in looking at modern mediated communication. The edited collection Neidhardt 1994 integrates theoretical and empirical work on mediated political communication and social movements into a common research framework. This framework is explicated in Gerhards and Neidhardt 1993. Gripsrud, et al. 2010 offers a comprehensive collection of key texts in public sphere theory from the Enlightenment era to the early 21st century. Butsch 2009 brings together contributions from US, European, and Asian scholars that explore how the media structure public spheres and how people use various media to participate in the public sphere. Breese 2011 introduces the distinction between civic public spheres oriented toward enhancing solidarity between citizens in their everyday life and political public spheres oriented toward influencing political decisions.

  • Breese, Elisabeth B. 2011. Mapping the variety of public spheres. Communication Theory 21.2: 130–149.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2885.2011.01379.x

    Breese argues for mapping public spheres along two continua: whether their orientation is toward civil society or the political system and whether they aim for face-to-face interaction or symbolic/mediated communication.

  • Butsch, Richard, ed. 2009. Media and public spheres. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

    The contributions to this volume explore the role of mass and online network media for the constitution and maintenance of public spheres in various countries and settings, drawing on conceptions of the public sphere that mostly go beyond the idea of rational-critical discourse. First published in 2007.

  • Calhoun, Craig, ed. 1992. Habermas and the public sphere. Cambridge, MA: MIT.

    Assembling contributions by Seyla Benhabib, Nancy Fraser, Moishe Postone, Nicholas Garnham, Michael Schudson, and many others, as well as a rejoinder by Jürgen Habermas, this volume reflects the Anglo-American reception of Habermas 1989 after its late translation into English.

  • Gerhards, Jürgen, and Friedhelm Neidhardt. 1993. Strukturen und funktionen moderner öffentlichkeit. In Politische kommunikation: Grundlagen, strukturen, prozesse. Edited by Wolfgang R. Langenbucher, 52–88. Vienna: Braumüller.

    German sociologists Jürgen Gerhards and Friedhelm Neidhardt develop an empirical model of public communication that distinguishes three levels of the public sphere (encounters in everyday life, public meetings and protests, and political communication in the mass media) and specifies the input, throughput, and output functions of the political public sphere.

  • Gripsrud, Jostein, Hallvard Moe, Anders Molander, and Graham Murdock, eds. 2010. The idea of the public sphere: A reader. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

    This collection of key texts traces the history of public sphere theory from Kant, Hegel, and John Stuart Mill through 20th-century debates, including those of Walter Lippmann and John Dewey, Hannah Arendt, Jürgen Habermas, Nancy Fraser, and John Rawls, to current challenges addressed, among others, in the works of Bernhard Peters, James Bohman, Chantal Mouffe, and Seyla Benhabib. Helpful for students and researchers alike.

  • Habermas, Jürgen. 1989. The structural transformation of the public sphere: An inquiry into a category of bourgeois society. Cambridge, MA: MIT.

    In this “founding study” of modern public sphere research, Habermas traces the roots of public sphere theory in British, French, and German philosophy of the Enlightenment era and develops a critical argument about the commercialization and “refeudalization” of public communication in the early 1960s that is still partially rooted in Frankfurt school critical theory. First published in German in 1962.

  • Neidhardt, Friedhelm, ed. 1994. Öffentlichkeit, öffentliche Meinung, soziale Bewegungen. Opladen, Germany: Westdeutscher Verlag.

    This collection of essays marks a turning point in public sphere research in that it confronts theoretical contributions, drawing on Jürgen Habermas as well as his counterpart in German sociology, Niklas Luhmann, with empirical contributions from political communication and social movement research, thus opening up new routes for the empirical investigation of public political communication under the conditions of media society.

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