The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere

"The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society" (in German "Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit. Untersuchungen zu einer Kategorie der bürgerlichen Gesellschaft"), by Jürgen Habermas, was published in 1962 and translated into English in 1989 by Thomas Burger and Frederick Lawrence. It was Habermas' first major work, his "Habilitationsschrift" in Germany done in order to obtain professorial credentials. The work was overseen by the political scientist Wolfgang Abendroth, to whom Habermas dedicated it.


It is an account of the development of a bourgeois public sphere in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and its subsequent decline. Two transformative phases organize Habermas' account: 1) from monarchical feudal status society to liberal bourgeois public sphere, and 2) from liberal bourgeois public sphere to modern mass social welfare state.

The first transition occurs in England, France, the United States, and Germany over the course of 150 years or so from the late seventeenth century (England leads the way) to the early nineteenth century (the change seems to come latest in Germany). Habermas explains the change by relating political, social, cultural and philosophical developments to each other. A monarchical, feudal society, which makes no distinction between state and society, public and private, and which organizes politics around symbolic representation and status, is replaced by a bourgeois liberal constitutional order that distinguishes between the public state, the private realm and then, within that private realm, a bourgeois public sphere for rational-critical political debate for the formation of public opinion. Spearheading this shift is the growth of a literary public sphere in which the bourgeoisie learns to critically reflect upon itself and its society. This first major shift occurs alongside the rise of early non-industrial capitalism and the philosophical articulation of political liberalism (from Hobbes, Locke, and Montesquieu to Rousseau and, above all, Kant). The flourishing of this bourgeois public sphere within the early laissez-faire, free-market, largely pre-industrial capitalist order of liberalism lasts from the late eighteenth century to the mid-nineteenth century.

The second part of Habermas' account traces the transition from the liberal bourgeois public sphere to the modern mass society of the social welfare state. Starting in the 1830s, picking up pace in the late nineteenth century, and by the early twentieth century, a new constellation of social, cultural, political, and philosophical developments takes shape, succeeding the constellation that had been marked by the bourgeois public sphere. Hegel's critique of Kant's liberal philosophy anticipates this shift, which comes to a philosophical head in Marx's astute diagnosis of the inherent contradictions in the liberal constitutional social order. (Habermas sees the modified liberalism of Mill and Tocqueville, with its ambivalence toward the public sphere, as manifesting these contradictions most emblematically.) Corresponding to this philosophical progression against classical liberalism are the major socio-economic transformations of industrialization and the rise of mature and advanced mass society consumer capitalism by the early twentieth century. The clear demarcation of public and private, state and society of the bourgeois public sphere epoch gives way to an increasing re-integration and entwining of state and society – seen, above all, in the development of the social welfare state. This shift, according to Habermas, can be seen as part of a larger dialectic, as political changes that lead to the disintegration of the bourgeois public sphere are done in order to save the liberal constitutional order in general. Drawing on the cultural critiques of Frankfurt School critical theory (Adorno was one of Habermas' teachers, but Horkheimer prevented Habermas' habilitation at the Institute for Social Research), Habermas focuses on the pernicious effects of commercialization and consumerization on the public sphere through the rise of mass media, "public relations", and consumer culture. He also lays out the problematic effects of mass party politics on deliberative parliamentarian politics and rational-critical debate in the public sphere.

The book was reprinted many times in German and other languages, and has been enormously influential, especially since its translation into English, for scholars of political science, media studies, and rhetoric. It is also an important work for historians of philosophy and intellectual historians, now that Habermas is recognized as an important philosopher of the twentieth century.


Since its publication, the "Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere" has been critiqued for Habermas’s formulation of the concept of a public sphere which he claims "stood or fell with the principle of universal access. A public sphere from which groups were ipso excluded was less than merely incomplete; it was not a public sphere at all." (Habermas 1967:85) However the bourgeois public sphere required as preconditions of entry an education and ownership of property – which correlated to membership of the upper classes i.e. the vast majority of society were excluded in exactly the manner which Habermas declares would invalidate any such claims.

To some extent, the public sphere has never existed, or has existed only by dint of its exclusions: the poor, women, slaves, migrants, the criminalised and in the current context animals. The public remains an ideal form, and though our conceptions have changed since Kant, that ideal is still to a great extent what Habermas might call an unfinished project of modernity. (Cubitt 2005:93)

Similar critiques regarding the exclusivity of the bourgeois public sphere demarcated by Habermas have been made by feminist and post-colonial authors in the years since the book's publication.


*Habermas, Jürgen (1962 trans 1989) "The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a category of Bourgeios Society", Polity, Cambridge.
*Cubitt, Sean (2005) "Ecomedia", Rodopi, Amsterdam.

External links

* [ Selected excerpts from The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere]

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