Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere
On The Concept of Public Opinion
Public opinion has different meanings depending on whether it acts as a critical authority in connection with a mandate that power be subject to publicity, or whether it acts as a molded object of staged display. The two aspects of publicity and public opinion do not stand in relationship of norm to fact. Critical and manipulative publicity are of different orders. The public behaves in a different way in each manifestation. One is based on public opinion, the other on non-public opinion.
Critical publicity is more than a norm. It determines much of the procedures to which the political exercise and balance of power is bound. Modern states rely on public opinion to legitimate and authorize power but cannot prove its existence. There are two paths to defining public opinion. One leads back to the position of liberalism, which constituted a critical public in the midst of a larger one that merely acclaimed. The element of publicity that guarantees rationality is to be salvaged at the expense of that which guarantees universal accessibility. The other path leads to a concept of public opinion that concentrates solely on institutional criteria. Government and parliament can be seen as mouthpieces of popular opinion or the majority party. The weakness of this theory is that it replaces the public with institutions and makes it nondescript.
Public opinion fully appeared as a problematic entity in the final quarter of the nineteenth century. Habermas analyses the socio-psychological and theoretical interpretations of public opinion. Public opinion became a socio- psychological analysis of group processes. Once public opinion is reduced to group behavior (a category that is between public and private) the articulation of the link between group opinion and public authority is left to the auxiliary science of public administration.
The only meaningful way to study the public sphere is to analyze its development and structural transformation. Conflict between the two types of publicity needs to be taken seriously as a gauge of democratization within the social-welfare state. The concept of public opinion should remain, because the social-welfare state must be seen as one in which the public sphere authorizes the exercise of power. Within this model, two politically relevant areas of communication can be contrasted to each other: informal, non-public opinions and formal, institutionally authorized opinions. Various subdivisions of informal opinion operate; the taken-for-granted, the experiences of your own biography and the things discussed as self-evident by the culture industry. All operate within a group's communication processes.
Formal opinions relate to specific institutions, and circulate narrowly between press and government. They achieve no mutual correspondence with the non- organized mass public. The two spheres are linked by manipulative publicity aimed at creating a following amongst a mediated public. A rare relationship exists between a few critical journals and those few individuals who form their opinions through literature. Strictly public opinion is possible only if the two domains are mediated by critical publicity. acting in intra-organized public spheres. The degree to which opinion is public depends on the degree to which it emerges from this intra-organizational public sphere of an organization's members, and the extent to which that sphere communicates with another public sphere formed by the mass media between state and society. In the conditions of a large social-democratic state, the communicative interconnection of the public can be created only by critical publicity brought to life within intra- organizational public spheres. Modern forms of consensus and conflict could also be altered, because they change as society develops historically. In the case of the structural transformation of the public sphere, we can study the extent, and the way, that it assumes its proper function determines whether the exercise of power and domination remain as negative forces, or are subject to change.
In this final section, Habermas analyses the term "public opinion" in its two key forms, and conducts a review of scholarly opinion about it. The two forms of public opinion are critical publicity and manipulative publicity. Critical publicity is that of the public sphere. It is based on true public opinion. It existed in its proper form in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but is still a central part of the modern democratic state.
However, modern public opinion is something of a fiction. It is needed to legitimate the power of governments, but it cannot be accurately described or analyzed. The various approaches to it seem to be flawed. One can either claim that a critical public exists, surrounded by an uneducated, uncritical mass public, as Mill and Tocqueville argued, or claim that public opinion exists in state and social institutions. This removes some of the critical functions of the public, and confuses it with the institutions that surround it. Whatever MPs may claim, the British Parliament is not the center of public opinion.
Habemas's assessment of social-psychological approaches to public opinion is almost a vindication of his own work. Unlike social psychologists, Habermas believes that the science of group behavior cannot explain such a complex phenomenon as public opinion. The only real approach is to consider its structures and their transformation. The extent to which the proper form of public opinion exists in a democratic state is shown by the conflict between Habermas's "good" and "bad" publicity.
Ultimately, Habermas comes closer to the idea that public opinion is represented in institutions than he admits. Although large-scale public institutions are a dubious feature of modern society, they can do useful publicity work if they have an "internal" public sphere that communicates with the public sphere of the press and those of other organizations. This is a long way from public opinion in its original form, but it does offer some possibilities for rational-critical debate. Habermas ends by arguing that the best chance we have of regulating power and domination in the modern world is the proper operation of the public sphere.
Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!