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The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society [Paperback]

Jurgen Habermas
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

16 July 1992
This major work retraces the emergence and development of the Bourgeois public sphere – that is, a sphere which was distinct from the state and in which citizens could discuss issues of general interest. In analysing the historical transformations of this sphere, Habermas recovers a concept which is of crucial significance for current debates in social and political theory. Habermas focuses on the liberal notion of the bourgeois public sphere as it emerged in Europe in the early modern period. He examines both the writings of political theorists, including Marx, Mill and de Tocqueville, and the specific institutions and social forms in which the public sphere was realized. This brilliant and influential work has been widely recognized for many years as a classic of contemporary social and political thought, of interest to students and scholars throughout the social sciences and humanities.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 328 pages
  • Publisher: Polity Press; New Ed edition (16 July 1992)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0745610773
  • ISBN-13: 978-0745610771
  • Product Dimensions: 1.3 x 14.6 x 22.9 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 121,575 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Review

′Why is this such a vital study? Its significance rests in its analysis of one of the central notions on which both our political life and our political theories rest: ′public opinion′. Presidential candidates worry about it, the press talks about it, political scientists try to measure it, but Habermas is one of the few people to have actually sat down and tried to think about it, to ask what it means to have an ′opinion′ that is not private, not idiosyncratic, but rather ′public′.′ James Schmidt, Boston University

From the Back Cover

This major work retraces the emergence and development of the Bourgeois public sphere – that is, a sphere which was distinct from the state and in which citizens could discuss issues of general interest. In analysing the historical transformations of this sphere, Habermas recovers a concept which is of crucial significance for current debates in social and political theory. Habermas focuses on the liberal notion of the bourgeois public sphere as it emerged in Europe in the early modern period. He examines both the writings of political theorists, including Marx, Mill and de Tocqueville, and the specific institutions and social forms in which the public sphere was realized. This brilliant and influential work has been widely recognized for many years as a classic of contemporary social and political thought, of interest to students and scholars throughout the social sciences and humanities.

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The usage of the words "public" and "public sphere" betrays a multiplicity of concurrent meanings. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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4.0 out of 5 stars Essential theory 30 Jan 2014
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
A groundbreaking study, a bit difficult at times because it is a translation of some complex concepts, but definitely a 'must have' for anyone interested in the theories of how society became politicised, including the role of the press and meeting places..
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0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent 23 Nov 2011
By Mattlj
Format:Paperback
I bought this book for my media course and actually found it really interesting, prompt delivery and it was exactly what I wanted.
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Amazon.com: 4.3 out of 5 stars  11 reviews
86 of 87 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere 4 April 2002
By mp - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
When you talk about the public sphere in front of intellectuals, Jürgen Habermas's name is bound to come up. Habermas's 1962 study, "The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere," examines the creation, brief flourishing, and demise of a public sphere based in rational-critical debate and discussion. The feasibility of a true public sphere, which is inclusive of anyone who would participate, is for Habermas of utmost importance. Habermas follows a methodology similar to the one Michel Foucault takes in "Discipline and Punish," which analyzes the abolition of public displays of power, and the process by which the structures of power are inculcated in the individual from the 17th through the 20th centuries. Habermas analyzes historical, economic, and political conditions from classical antiquity through his own historical moment, tracing the circumstances in which the public sphere arises, how it functions, and ceases to function over time.
Habermas begins with a delineation of the terms 'public' and 'private,' orienting them philologically from their roots and meanings in classical antiquity. From here, he traces the adoption of the words and their synonyms into the European Middle Ages and the era of feudalism. Habermas says that in this period, the feudal lord and the monarch, for whom `representative publicness' functioned as a display of power before their subjects, dominated the public. Authority figures embodied virtues and powers in a public fashion. Public representation of political and economic power continued, unabated until the Reformation, at which time, the privatization of religious faith signaled a separation between society and the state. Economically, in the 16th and 17th centuries, the spread of trade necessitated the spread of news from various locales. As news outside of the home became relevant to home economy, the private individual begins to take an interest in public events. Consolidation of 'national' financial administration and state-controlled taxation, along with the rise of print culture, facilitated the dissemination of news, initially in the form of governmental decrees, market conditions, and happenings at court. Through this, the actions of the authorities came under the scrutiny of a reading public.
The 18th century is the key moment for Habermas. In this period, the government, along with private individuals, made use of the press, for the first time, in persuasive appeal to a public made up of private people. The press now presented the public with information, with which they were to use reason and discussion to determine what was in the public's interest. Habermas emphasizes the theoretical parity that this brings about - the rise of the coffee houses and salons, in which merchants met with gentility and engaged in rational-critical debate over issues of public import. Stretching this into the realm of the franchise, Habermas is careful to point out the problematics of a situation in which actual decision-making was restricted to those with money and land, but stresses that the opportunity for anyone to acquire these prerequisites was, again, theoretically, open to all.
For a brief time during the 18th century, Habermas sees the flourishing of a public sphere, born out of a reading public, that began to interact with the processes of public policy, legally, and morally. The purpose of this public sphere, according to Habermas, is to eliminate the domination of authoritative power, and establishing a government that is actually representative of the public will and contingent upon public opinion. Unfortunately, in the 19th century, with the stratification of party politics, the proliferating press encouraged less rational-critical discussion. Increasingly, debate moved into parliamentary circles, and the public was asked only to approve of party measures, not participate in the formation of the rules that governed them. In the 20th century, along with the creation of the welfare-state, consolidation of moneyed interests, and the expansion of universal suffrage (ironically), the public sphere disintegrated even further. New media - radio, television, etc. - turned its addresses to the public into mere advertising. Even the illusion of a private people engaged, as a public, in matters of their own governance, was gone, and the public became vessels for mass media.
To recuperate a true participatory public sphere, Habermas takes a guarded approach. He indicates that some kind of elite could be formed. These private individuals would undertake the responsibility of rational-critical debate, determining the public interest. The general public, then, would give their approval or disapproval to the measures decided on by this elite. This is kind of a bleak outlook, and one I don't much care for myself. Of course, this is a horribly limited review of Habermas's "Structural Transformation". I haven't even noted the break he takes to outline the historical-philosophical evaluation and critique of the public sphere by Kant, Hegel, Marx, Mill, and Tocqueville. Nor did I note the extensive use Habermas makes of political and economic changes in his key nations - England, France, and Germany - and the contributions these make to the disintegration of the public sphere. At any rate, "Structural Transformation" is an exhaustive (and exhausting) study, as relevant now to the study of literature, economics, government, history, etc., especially of the last three centuries, as it ever was. Even though it is a pain to read, you'll be glad you finally read it. Think of it as theoretical medicine - it may not taste good, but in the long run, it's good for you.
20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the most influential studies on the subject 1 Nov 2004
By Filipe Carreira da Silva - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Habermas' work, though written more than four decades ago, still retains most of its original relevance for the study of the public sphere. If you are interested in this subject, and if you are into critical thinking, then this book is certainly worth reading. Why? Well, if you take in consideration the fact that no other book has been written so far on the subject that has been able to surpass Habermas' account both in depth and originality, then you begin to get my point. As to a critical reading of the argument put forth by Habermas, one should read "Habermas and the Public Sphere", edited by Craig Calhoun. This book includes an appendix by Habermas where he revises some of his original positions.
17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Habermas: The Public in History 16 Sep 2005
By David K. Dyer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
In this monograph, Habermas tracks the origination, the evolution, and the dispersal of an informed "public sphere" among democratic Western nations. He defines public sphere as "private people com[ing] together as a public" (27). Once these individuals, gathered as reading groups or as aficionados of theatre, the arts, and politics, the individuals melded into a public capable of debating the government. Habermas locates these fledgling "publics" primarily in eighteenth-century France, England and to a lesser extent in the areas of Europe designated as German. Tellingly, Habermas strongly links the formation of the public sphere with the rise of capitalism and a continuing bourgeois revolution. Comprised of literate individuals governed by the principals of the Enlightenment, these "publics" eventually challenged the validity and legitimacy of governments, most notably in France during the French Revolution and England during the English Civil War.

Habermas builds a compelling argument based upon his interpretation of Rousseau, Kant, Locke, Hegel, and Marx. He links the works of these philosophers and sociologists in a credible chain stretching back to the eighteenth century. However, he only deals thoroughly with the educated, propertied elite of society. Habermas views the "unpropertied" and illiterate as a separate from and incapable of participating in a true public sphere. To do this he must dismiss a plethora of lower class uprisings found throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. Even when the various governments quickly quashed these rebellions, the Ludites in England and the various rebellions of 1848 come to mind, it is difficult to dispute the effect these rebels and rebellions had upon the public discourse. As an early work on the subject, it is almost certain that Habermas had to amend his arguments following E.P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class, published in 1963 a scant year after this work. His exclusion of the great press of society from a functioning public sphere seems arrogant at best and naïve at worst.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere 14 Dec 2008
By Tod F. Sarguis - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
JURGEN HABERMAS. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. MIT Press. 1991. Year. 298 Pages. $26.10 .

The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society was written by Jurgen Habermas in 1962 and later translated from German to English in 1989 by Thomas Burger. Habermas who is part of the Frankfurt School of thought, seeks to explain the rise of capitalism through the synthesis of the bourgeois with government and industry. His concept includes defining the notion of "public spheres" and "private spheres" of influence and charts these spheres from feudal times until now.
Spheres can be seen as influences leading towards political action. At first in feudal times, public spheres did not exist at all. The entire role of politics was a private matter between nobles, kings, and the rest of the landed gentry.[14] The base point for examination is the expansion of the bourgeois public sphere into Northern and Western Europe. Later, as Habermas describes, there emerged extensive influence from the bourgeois public sphere through cultivation movements in salons (France), coffee houses(England), and tischgisellschaften (German table societies). As the capitalist bourgeois class who had achieved their status as monopolists in manufacturing began entering these salons with the nobles, they asserted their control. "A new stratum of bourgeois people arose occupying a central position within the public" They were the ones with key economic positions and by that nature had the greatest influence, and no longer was that the case of the gentry who were losing their political significance. The "burghers", who were the old occupational order of craftsmen and shopkeepers suffered the greatest downward mobility in the new dynamic, and their interests virtually ceased to be addressed. [23] The "noble" cause of the original founders of the bourgeois public sphere which were in line with the spirit of humanism were abandoned in the end in favor of the new "political task of the bourgeois public sphere [which] was the regulation of civil society."[52]
Habermas centers his studies and draws analogies between England, Germany, and France in many cases throughout this book. He goes to a time in the pre-modern era where there was no perception of "public", and the word had not yet even been invented. After setting the pre-modern stage, he goes through the timeline to modern times showing the transformation of public and private spheres and how they are manipulated to attain power by the bourgeoisie. He does a good job of explaining the transformation of the bourgeois class in each of these respective models.
The bourgeois, who for all practical purpose, was excluded for leadership in State or Church, "in time completely took over all key positions in the economy." [33] A new synthesis emerged which was a combination of both nobles and the elite merchants, a marriage of old money to new. The structural changes that came about were a result of the new influx. It is here that the ideas of separation of church and state are set forth, and freemasonry takes hold. Although Habermas notes that in Lessing's famous statement he questions "if indeed bourgeois society in not merely an offspring of freemasonry." [35]
Habermas charts the transformation of the public sphere in Britain circa 1700 and explains why the changes took place there first compared to continental Europe. The parliamentary system is then contrasted with the Constitutional one. Ultimately it is the elimination of the literary sphere which fuels the change. [57] The sphere is taken away from the public domain and best embodied through the rise of the press as an institution complimenting the state's well being over the individual. The state had a structural need to side with the new capitalist and the vast company empires they wielded over any notion of the public's well being at large.
"The function of the bourgeois public sphere crystallized into the idea of "public opinion"." The very nature and definition of "opinion" which is only a possible truth, and one not verified necessarily factually is suspect. [89] Through manipulation of public opinion, the new bourgeois public sphere merged into the overall structure and dominated it. Publicity became a key role in generating a perception that the needs of the public were in fact being met. The bourgeois public sphere evolved through these processes where no other group could. "...in the tension charged field between state and society" they were always able to "remain part of the private sphere." [141]
Hebermas charts the rise of book clubs in Anglo-Saxon countries that ultimately assisted in the tendency "towards the collapse of the literary public sphere"][168] This leads to a shift in the public sphere which gives way to its new pre-eminent institution, the press. [180] Advertising rose to create an new conflict, and influx of private capitalistic ideals into the public sphere. "the interests of commodities owners invaded the public sphere."[192] And more than just business, "advertising had a political element in its public presentation of private interest." The role of publicity became to "strengthen the prestige of one's own position." [200] The structural transformation compete, the new class is no longer bourgeois since they are "now confronted with the job of integrating" the masses. [203] Manufactured publicity allows citizens to relate to the state "by adopting a general attitude of demand." They assume their interests will be dealt with, and go along with the consensus they are presented through media. [211]
The Habermas' study is greatly in depth, even including contemporaries of his time such as C. Wright Mills and Hannah Arendt as he extrapolates his theory from past events to present. His work seems highly valuable for anyone interested in the nature of power and how it had been derived throughout all Western nations. [249]In the end this is a very readable book, though highly detailed. It makes for an excellent reference for historians and sociologists alike. The book is written so well, that each chapter can be taken in its own context or melded with his overall investigation. The theory Habermas sets forth in this book takes the Frankfurt school to a new level of thought its founding father Max Weber would have never conceived possible. Using structuralism and conflict theory, much like Marx, the Habermas opus addresses modern power like no one before in his school of thought.
Tod F. Sarguis
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Important thinking in political philosophy of democracy 13 Oct 2008
By Thomas W. Sulcer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
During the Renaissance a wonderful phenomenon happened which was caused, in part, by merchants and traders needing accurate information about distant markets as well as by the growth of democracy and individual liberty and popular sovereignty. This phenomenon is the "public sphere" -- a place between private individuals and government authorities in which people could meet and have rational-critical debates about public matters. It served as a counterweight to political authority. So people could discuss politics, criticize government decisions, inform each other about what was going on. It took place physically in coffee houses and cafes and public squares as well as happened in the media in letters, books, art. It was a positive force which helped keep authorities within bounds, lest their rulings be ridiculed in print or criticized in coffee salons.

Today, in contrast, there is little public debate, no public forums. We have the illusion of a public sphere. It's been transformed. Habermas tries to show how this happened. I think his work is stronger in showing the before and after effects of the transformation. But when he tries to show how this happened, his writing is often confusing, with sentences you can reread several times and still shake your head. Make no mistake: this is a difficult book to read. It's slow going, but worth it.

I think Habermas is right in the overall conclusion about the transformation of the public sphere. For example, real news (ie news we need as free people to stay informed and which helps keep us free) is being elbowed out by advice, entertainment, soft-porn, catchy garbage and celebrity antics. News is being transformed from rational-critical information to a commodity forced to compete in a giant entertainment market. It's a consumer good. It doesn't matter whether it's right or wrong, important or irrelevant. Rather, news must be entertaining. And, we're no longer real citizens but rather consumers, investors, members in a society who participate very little in government.

I highly recommend this book for serious students of politics and democracy. It is difficult reading. For the casual reader, it may be best to read a simpler overview book or treatment first, or to approach this under the guidance of a professor as part of a course, otherwise much of the text may appear incomprehensible. But his conclusions are on target, particularly the before and after comparison.

Thomas W. Sulcer
author of "The Second Constitution of the United States"
(free on web -- google title above + sulcer)
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