ICA 2009 Mini-Plenary

Keywords: The Public Sphere, Public Culture and Reasoned Public Choice

59th Annual Conference of the International Communication Association (ICA), Chicago, May 22, 2009

Organizer: Andreas Koller, Social Science Research Council and New York University


Session Rationale

This session seeks to sort out the referents of the keywords “Public Sphere, Public Culture and Reasoned Public Choice” and their stakes for theory and research in social science in general and in media and communication studies in particular. Clarifying these keywords is a necessary condition for well-defined comparative and historical research and for broader, cross-unit usage of these concepts in media and communication studies.

As the ICA Call for Papers says, Raymond Williams “argued that groups build key terms of reference by which they collectively make sense of things around them. Problems, debates, and points of conflict all depend on the recognition and usage of key terminology which enables and shapes certain kinds of collective understanding.” Public Culture spans all these key terms of reference, symbols and meanings that are publicly circulating or publicly accessible, relevant to a society at large (while not necessarily shared in the sense of commonly accepted). The realm in which this circulation takes place is the public sphere, constituted by communication open to strangers, building an intermediary sphere between the private sphere of everyday life and the various institutional fields of society.

The session seeks to disentangle the concept of the public sphere and the concept of reasoned public choice and attempts to move the assessment of the latter from stiff dichotomies to conceptual gradualism. The notion of unlimited reasoned public choice serves as a methodological fiction in order to detect empirical variations – variations in the extent to which public communication and the direction of the social process can be something different than the mirror of mere power politics, mere expression of personal experience, or mere reproduction of cultural traditions.

However, the stakes of the concept of the public sphere are not limited to its capacity of reasoned public choice. The public sphere, constituted by an ongoing process of communication open to strangers, is not only a mechanism for reasoned debate and public choice, but also a form of and a process for forming solidarity and a sense of belonging. This requires studying public culture at large, that is, capturing also all those cultural changes that are not easily reducible to either advances or decreases in the capacity of reasoned public choice. The participants address the referents and the stakes of the keywords from the angle of their recent work which explicitly or implicitly also provides elements of a Zeitdiagnose of public culture.

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