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What are the strengths and weaknesses of the public sphere as a concept and theory?

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The strength of the public sphere, as a concept and theory, is that it provides a methodology and conceptualization of the "voice of the people." In other words, the public sphere is the direct and indirect, written and oral, discussions among people who are not officially part of the government...

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The strength of the public sphere, as a concept and theory, is that it provides a methodology and conceptualization of the "voice of the people." In other words, the public sphere is the direct and indirect, written and oral, discussions among people who are not officially part of the government or ruling classes. Habermas is thinking of reasonable people in coffee shops, restaurants, and other socializing places. He is also thinking of the influence of newspapers and opinion pieces. This sphere forms the court of public opinion. The crucial function of this is to check the government. With the rise of the bourgeoisie and the public sphere, governments and monarchies had to become more accountable for their actions.

In theory, the public sphere is a vital tool for people to have a voice (collective or variated) that keeps their government aware of their needs. One problem is that the critical discussions about politics and policies became specialized and practiced by academics and professionals. This limits the public sphere. Habermas recognized this and encouraged an integration between these specializations and the common needs and language of most people. The whole point is to address the needs of everyone: not just academics and artists in coffee shops.

Another problem is that faith in the public sphere assumes that most discussions, essays, and media in general will be reasonable or will facilitate reasonable debate. This comes from Habermas’ faith in Reason. Habermas considers Modernity to be an incomplete project (stemming from the also incomplete “Enlightenment”). To complete the project, he believes in Reason in the public sphere. He argues that poststructuralists (such as Foucault, Lyotard, and Derrida) have abandoned reason as a historical project. Habermas has even called these critics “young conservatives”—a label most critics would strongly disagree with. Habermas did so to mark his difference from their methodologies. Whereas they discuss a fragmented, diverse set of interpretive theories, Habermas’s insistence on Reason suggests a universalism that might not reflect the different needs of different kinds of people. Hence, another problem with this universal notion of the public sphere can be found.

In other words, a problem with the public sphere is the risk of homogenizing what public opinion is. The opinion of smaller, marginalized groups might be excluded. Or, in the case of the United States today, there is the risk of boiling it down to a binary of opinions: the right and the left. Either result seems to be a generalization of public thought.

Another contemporary problem is confusing the media’s influence and public opinion. Social media is a virtual public sphere, but people are constantly bombarded by the normative media (right and left, Fox and MSNBC, etc.) to the point that one questions whether the public can have their own opinion any more. Is the influence too pervasive? Is reasonable debate the norm or a rarity on social media? And how do we correct that?

Despite these problems, the public sphere does seem like a now indispensable and vital part of a democracy. Certainly, there are problems that evolve as the public sphere evolves. And Habermas’s early insistence on Reason as a universalizing consensus smacks a bit too much of homogenization and generalization especially in a diverse, free population. As public opinion evolves and diversifies, the notion of a public sphere should evolve as well.

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Habermas described the "bourgeois public sphere" as a sort of forum in which people shared their opinions outside the control of the state beginning in the eighteenth century. In short, it was the sum total of media, actual public spaces, like taverns and coffeehouses, and other spaces in which ideas were exchanged. These ideas could often be critical of the state, and Habermas points to the power of the public sphere in bringing about the destabilization of absolutist monarchies.

The theory of the public sphere has considerable explanatory power. Perhaps its greatest strength is that, as a sociological theory, it is strongly historically informed. It accounts for the rise of mass media and for the role of bourgeois ideology in effecting political change. In terms of its weaknesses, some critics have pointed out that Habermas does not account for the gendered nature of the public sphere. By stressing its inclusivity, they argue, Habermas does not recognize the implications of excluding women from public debate and politics as a whole. Others argue that it idealizes Enlightenment and eighteenth-century liberal thought. Today, the rise of social media has caused people to question whether Habermas's idea that mass consumer culture destroyed the public sphere is valid.

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There are various strengths and weaknesses in the theory of the public sphere by Jurgen Habermas. The theory revolves around the concept of the public's influence on a democratic government. This theory also centers around the public's interest and civil right to discuss overall policy and law. In today's society, the public sphere can be utilized through media. Media allows the public to receive information to participate in political issues and debates. An example of this would be political campaigns.

A strength of this theory and concept is the allowance of public voice and freedom of speech. The concept of public theory enables the public to come together to discuss civil topics and societal issues with the state. This is a strength because the general idea of the theory is to give way and equal opportunity to communities to convey their needs and wants. However, a weakness to this strength is the possibility of neglecting an unpopular opinion. Even though a concept or an idea may be a popular interest, it does not mean it is a definite decision across the population. This may cause interruption in the attempt at finding equilibrium because not all ideas were fully taken into account.

Another strength of the public sphere lies in the opportunities for common leaders to take a stand and speak for the public. A leader may voice ideal factors in needs and wants for the general public. This helps develop strong officers within the community to address certain issues. A weakness, however, may be the possibility of an individual overthrowing the public's interest because they have been put in this leadership position. Individuals within the public sphere may still find fault and monarchy within the system. This relates back to the concept that not everyone in the public sphere may be heard.

The public sphere and its purpose may only be available to those who have resources to meet and communicate their concerns or debates. The public sphere may not address all populations from different socio-economic statuses or cultural backgrounds. Though its purpose is to reach the general population, the public sphere would have to be met by accumulating different resources such as transportation, proper technology, and cultural barriers. It is a strength on its own that the public sphere is an open forum for the people of the state to connect and collaborate with higher figures. However, in the end, it is almost as though the state still has the final say in the decisions made within the said democracy.

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