public sphere (rhetoric)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

public sphere
Monroe E. Price describes the public sphere as "a set of activities in which the authority of pre-existing status attributes—such as wealth, family, and ethnicity—lose their sway in the distribution of civic authority. Argumentation based on assumed laws of nature comes to have more significance" ( Television, the Public Sphere, and National Identity, 1995). (Boris Lyubner/Getty Images)


In rhetoric, the public sphere is a physical or (more commonly) a virtual place where citizens exchange ideas, information, attitudes, and opinions.

Though the concept of the public sphere originated in the 18th century, German sociologist Jürgen Habermas is credited with popularizing the term in his book The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962; English translation, 1989).

The "continued relevance of the public sphere," says James Jasinski, should be clear to those "who envision a relationship between situated rhetorical practice and the performative ideal of practical reason" (Sourcebook on Rhetoric, 2001).

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Examples and Observations

  • "The public sphere is . . . a metaphorical term used to describe the virtual space where people can interact. . . . The World Wide Web, for example, is not actually a web; cyberspace is not a space; and so with the public sphere. It's the virtual space where the citizens of a country exchange ideas and discuss issues, in order to reach agreement about 'matters of general interest' ([Jürgen] Habermas, 1997: 105). . . .

    "The public sphere is . . . a metaphor which keeps us focused on the distinction between individual, personal forms of representation--over which we have a large degree of control--and shared, consensual representations--which are never exactly what we would like to see precisely because they are shared (public). It's a liberal model which sees the individual human being as having an important input into the formation of the general will--as opposed to totalitarian or Marxist models, which see the state as ultimately powerful in deciding what people think."
    (Alan McKee, The Public Sphere: An Introduction. Cambridge University Press, 2005)

  • The Internet and the Public Sphere
    "While the internet does not, in itself, constitute a public sphere, its potential for point-to-point communication, worldwide access, immediacy, and distribution facilitate offline and online protests and participation by widely distributed groups. [Craig] Calhoun concludes that 'one of the most important potential roles for electronic communication is . . . enhancing public discourse . . . that joins strangers and enables large collectivities to make informed decisions about their institution and their future' (['Information Technology and the International Public Sphere,' 2004)."
    (Barbara Warnick, Rhetoric Online: Persuasion and Politics on the World Wide Web. Peter Lang, 2007)

  • Blogging and the Public Sphere
    "Blogging reverses a trend that had become increasingly worrying in an era dominated by mass media, namely the erosion of what the cultural critic Jurgen Habermas called 'the public sphere'--an area where citizens gather to generate opinions and attitudes that affirm or challenge the actions of the state. Mass media offered the illusion of diversity while narrowing the range of real choices available--the '600 channels and nothing on' syndrome. Blogging has revived--and begun to expand--the public sphere, and in the process may revitalise our democracies."
    (John Naughton, "Why Everyone's Invited to the Tenth Birthday Bash for Blogger." The Observer, Sep. 13, 2009)

  • Habermas on the Public Sphere
    "By 'the public sphere' we mean first of all a realm of our social life in which something approaching public opinion can be formed. Access is guaranteed to all citizens. A portion of the public sphere comes into being in every conversation in which private individuals assemble to form a public body. They then behave neither like business or professional people transacting private affairs, nor like members of a constitutional order subject to the legal constraints of a state bureaucracy. Citizens behave as a public body when they confer in an unrestricted fashion--that is, with the guarantee of freedom of assembly and association and the freedom to express and publish their opinions--about matters of general interest. In a large public body this kind of communication requires specific means for transmitting information and influencing those who receive it. Today [1962] newspapers and magazines, radio and television are the media of the public sphere. We speak of the political public sphere in contrast, for instance, to the literary one, when public discussion deals with objects connected to the activity of the state. Although state authority is so to speak the executor of the political public sphere, it is not a part of it."
    (Jürgen Habermas, passage from Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit, 1962. Excerpt translated as "The Public Sphere" and published in New German Critique, 1974)