April 13, 2024, Saturday
२०८१ बैशाख १, शनिबार

Democratic Public Sphere: A Conceptual view


Public sphere is a strategic tool to practice democracy in the modern state. Public sphere is a common forum for all the people in democracy. People can use their opinion: agreement disagreement criticism regarding anything of their life. However, not all people may get equal opportunities in public sphere. The power-sharing problem may be seen in the public sphere. The socio- political power of the people is different and people cannot use the political sphere equally. This paper will raise the issues of unequal use of public sphere in democracy.

Keywords: public sphere, power, stateless people, democracy


The term public sphere is the English translation of the German term “Öffentlichkeit.” This term’s significance in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century stems initially from its use in Jürgen Habermas Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit (The structural transformation of the public sphere) in 1962. In spite of its foreign origin, the term public sphere actually represented an attempt to articulate those aspects of Anglo-American liberal culture associated with the formation of public opinion and popular sovereignty. The public sphere is neither merely the public nor simply the conditions of equality and universal access that permit the free exchange of ideas; it also encompasses the actual process through which private individuals come together to form public opinion. The notion of individuals are private it meant to the rank who is not standing for formation of public(Habermas)

The history of public sphere has had long in its conceptualization. It was supposed to found in the time of Aristotle. He is known as the first thinker emphasizing the separation of public from private. Aristotle distinguished the private as spheres of particular beings such as individual slave, woman, and family and the public sphere as a sphere of citizens and polis (Kokan 1). The public sphere and democratic theory in Habermas’s monumental work Between Facts and Norms. Hence, concern with the public sphere and the necessary conditions for a genuine democracy can be seen as a central theme of Habermas’s work that deserves respect and critical scrutiny.

Nancy Fraser describes public sphere:

              Parallel discursive arenas where members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counter discourses to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities ( qtd in Kocan 11).

Habermas has defined public sphere with various meaning: firstly autonomous, arising from a civil society; secondly a type of public communicative interaction; thirdly as a function of structures, institutions, and agents. It means the public sphere is accessible and open to all in principle, which ensures that every citizen has equal ability to participate in public debate and express their option (Kokan 8). Habermas’ concept of public sphere is clear and postulates participatory involvement in public forum equally by all. It means all are equal to utilize public sphere. Therefore, public sphere is a forum, where all individuals constituents enough to be the part of public discussion. It means public sphere is open to all in democracy. He conceives the public sphere as both an institution and a form of communication, in which people can express their common affair: a forum or space that can be made socially or politically. Charles Taylor describes public sphere as an essential part of modern social imagination where all members of political society come together. He offers three statuses of public sphere: extra-political, secular, and, meta-topical. In extra-political, there is lack of traditional authority: the power of discussion for producing public opinion has only been derived from reason not from political authority; in secular: an absence of transcendental idea, on which public sphere is based; and meta-topical: shared nonlocal social imaginaries (Kokan 8)

            Both Habermas and Taylor define public sphere as open forum to all. They are here to put the idea of idealistic concept of public sphere. Nevertheless, John Keane defines public sphere differently. He views public sphere need to be taken with descriptive understanding. It must be analyzed with spatial relation between two or more people. He further opines public sphere should be connected by certain means of communication, concerning the power relation operating within their milieu of interaction in milieu of social and political structures within which the disputants (Kokan 9).

It means no people can use public sphere freely. The concern on the power relation operation does not provide the free exercise of public sphere to all people. Michel Foucault uses heterotopic spaces such places as cemeteries colonies brothels .It encourages the idea of a simultaneity of spatial plays that highlights choice diversity and differences. He talks about alternatives that do not only explore figments of imagination but also the existences of social process.. Alternatives can take shape and from these spaces that a critique of existing norms and processes can most effectively be mounted.The history of such spaces shows us how and in what ways spatial forms might connect to radically different social processes and so disrupt the homogeneity to which society typically clings (Harvey 184). Foucault describes public space is not a completely free term rather it is a co-existing phenomena that needs spatial relation with society and its members.

The polis required the public forum that should be in access to all citizen and a large varieties of social experiences could be expressed rationally idealistic discussion towards systematically and rationally exchanged in idealistic examining of policies of the state. Public sphere stands for an ideal for the construction of democratic society, in which public scrutiny of governmental policies move beyond the boundaries of formal politics.

            Hanna Arendt  views the notion of public sphere as being grounded in the realization of the common good through rational debate has been replaced by a notion as consenting of numerous and heterogynous conversation and argument never finally resolved. Habrmas’s theory of public sphere attempts to combine the aim of descriptive realistic theory and normative theory; should fit and justify the deliberate democracy model (kocan7-9).

Charles Taylor defines public sphere is a common space in which the members of society was deemed meet through a variety of media: print, electronic and also face to face encounter; to discuss mater of common interest. Her understanding of public sphere is not a single comprehensive unitary order rather as several competing public formed by competing arenas of discourse, conflicting modes of participation and different strategies for social action. She points out multiple layers of public sphere though there is a dominant public sphere where most cultural and political power resides. Her approach emphasizes autonomous public sphere, where power relation and conflict always constitute relation in between publics. Her concept of public sphere draws more attention that public sphere can be an instrument of domination rather than an ideal of democracy. She divides public into strong and weak public (Kokan 10-11).

The idea portrait by Fraser compels to think about the equal use of public sphere in democracy. Strong public can utilize public sphere in better way or inbeneficial way. They can be in centre to utilize power and rights in democracy.They can easily raise their voice and use public sphere according to their interest. However, weak public may not be capable enough to use public sphere in present democratic practices. Their voices are ignored as weak voice. The voice of marginalized people and economically deprived people is not listened as well as they cannot raise their voice strongly in public sphere. The case was same in Europe for black, for Tarai mulba:si [1]in Nepal, Muslim in China Jews in Germany at Hitler time.  

The theoretical framework of public sphere sees both actual and ideal. The philosophers like Aristotle, Hannah Ardent and Habermas have defined  public sphere as single shared sphere whereas Taylor Fraser has defined public sphere as multiple shared sphere.

Public communication has been a part of public sphere. Functional and instrumental notions of public communication dole out public sphere through resolution of differences, the promotion of mutual respect, the cooperative pursuit of end. The public communication can be used as: regulative truth oriented, and story-telling. Regulative communication is constitutive of identities, norms, and relation between those participated in communicative process. It presupposes agreement about implicitly raised validity claims as background consensus because of common meaning of situation. The validity claims reflect the regulative function of speech: external nature, internal nature, and society (Kokan 21-23).

Habermas states regulative communication is oriented to achieving and sustaining reviewing consensus; rest on the recognition of two conditions: equality and freedom (in Kokan 24).

Truth oriented communication is a critical examination of the moral truth for demonstrating where one is trying to offer the general definition that one doesn’t know about what justice is, and therefore cannot justify particular action for everybody. Justification is characterized as giving a rational account of belief. Nevertheless, justification of a certain belief can never be final, as it is always conditioned (Kokan 25-27).

As public communication is discussed as a tool for public sphere, it can be an idealistic only. The truth oriented public communication is a hypothetical component. It is not static. Foucault concept truth is power and power is truth; clarifies the domination of powerin truth creation and its influence in public sphere. So, public sphere has not equally distributed in democratic state, as power is there to decide the use of public sphere.

Public sphere is hardly in practice in life of stateless public. They are treated as inhuman. In Nepal, Bhutanese refugees hardly have chance to use public sphere. They wanted to return their homeland, Bhutan; but they are shifted to European countries; still refugee. They  have not got chance to use public sphere. Likewise, Nepali soldiers in the UK demanding for equal rights since long. It shows they also do not have proper public sphere.

Hannah Ardent in her book The Origins of Totalitarianism deals with the problem faced by refugee in their daily life. He says:

Man had hardly appeared as a complete emancipated, completely isolated being who carried his dignity within himself without reference to some larger encompassing order, where he disappeared again into a member of people (Ardent 291)

The idea of Ardent is enough to understand the condition of refugee in the world if we explore the meaning of paradoxical line. The question of human rights was quickly and inextricably blended with the question of national emancipation;only emancipated sovereignty of the people of one’s own people be able to insure them (Ardent 291)

The stateless people were as convinced as the minorities that loss of national rights was identical with loss of human rights, that the former inevitably entailed the latter. The more they excluded from right in any form the more they tended to look for the reintegration into national, into their own national community.

Ardent further says the Greek, a highly developed political life in the beginning of democracy breeds a deep rooted suspicion of private and public sphere. The public sphere is as consistently based on the law of equality as the private sphere is based on the low of universal difference and differentiation. Equality in contrast to allthat is involved more existence, is not given us, but is result of human organization in so far as it is guided by principle of justice. We are not born equal; we become equal members of a group on the strength of our decision to guarantee ourselves mutually equal rights (301).


The stateless people, refugee, also are the victim of private sphere as they loss their home land, cannot get chance to use public sphere; even may not have private sphere properly. Ardent is here to analyze the life of refugee and their suffering in present democratic public sphere.

Aristotle used public sphere as idealistic sphere; everybody can get equal opportunities to utilize it. It is considered as a common forum for all people. But Keane Fraser opine public sphere as realistic where cultural and political power relation can verify the uses of public sphere even in democratic notion of the state.

Public sphere is an idealistic phenomenon of democracy though it is not in real in practice. The democratic component of public sphere should be used as far as possible. The notion of equality can be made if we follow both idealistic and realistic notion of public sphere. The philosophy of public sphere should be analyzed if we want to put it for even commoner. Hence, more things are there to do in democracy for establishment of public sphere


  • Ardent, Hannah. The origin of Totalitarianism. New York: Harcourt Brace and  Company 
  • Habermas,.Jargan15 october 2016<http//en.wikipedia.org.wiki/jargan habermas.u.10
  • Harvey, David. Space of Hope. Edinburg:  Edinburg UP.2000
  • Kokan, Gurcan. Eurosphere Online Working papers : Models of Public Sphere in PoliticalPhilosophy<http//www.eurosphere.uib.no/knowledgebase/workingpapers.htm

[1] Indigenous people of lowland of Nepal