Comparing Public Spheres
Professor John Downey
European University Institute
The Idea of the Public Sphere
• Most famously associated with Habermas but
also in C20th Arendt and Dewey;
• Roots in an Aristotelian view of active citizenship;
• Normative as well as empirical concept –
specifying conditions for democracy – the only
force permitted is the force of the better
• The rise of the public sphere;
• And its fall?
• The public sphere in flux and subject to change.
Modes of ‘Publicness’
• The everyday – from the coffehouse to the public house ;
• The occasional – events, protests;
• The mass-mediated;
• ‘New media’;
• The private and the public;
• Intimate sphere; the sphere of the state; and that of
• Colonization of the lifeworld and the public sphere by
economic and political elites;
• Ability of journalists to resist pressure from elites;
• Ability of resource poor groups to influence agenda;
• Mediatization thesis – power of media over politics.
Impact of news impact
• Are media the independent or the dependent
variable? Cause or effect? Or both?
• Media effects?
• Agenda-setting: media influence what we
think about rather than causing us to think in
• Complex causation;
• Valence and visibility.
Different models of the public sphere
• Deliberative – civility, internal pluralism, inclusive;
• Liberal – elite driven, civility, restricted pluralism;
• Republican – inclusive, external pluralism, uncivil;
• ‘Multicultural’ public sphere – inclusive, different
modes of discourse;
• Which models correspond best to historical and
contemporary manifestations of the public?
Comparison as a method
• Which unit of analysis? The national?
• But that may overlook differences (class, ethnic)
differences within the state;
• Class-based publics;
• And it may overlook transnational publics;
• Comparing apples with pommes;
• What to count? How to count?
• How to explain the results?
• Comparisons over time…much less common.
What to measure and how?
• Intensity of debate – driven by national elite dissensus;
• Political parallelism - varieties;
• Economic parallelism – ‘paid news’;
• External pluralism – intra-system;
• Is greater pluralism always a good thing?
• Internal pluralism – intra-institution;
• Inclusiveness of debate;
• Polarization of debate;
• Just the news media or popular cultural forms as well?
• Content analysis;
• Discourse analysis;
• Frame analysis – hard to operationalise for large data sets;
• Decline in news consumption.
European versus national public
• European Union is referred to the best
example of cosmopolitan citizenship;
• Limits to this ‘imagined community’?
• Also recognition of a ‘democratic deficit’ –
distance between citizens and institutions and
lack of a European ‘we’;
• Can a European public sphere be created that
helps to create this sense of we that is
essential to a strong democracy?
Institutional versus culturalist
• Institutional approach stresses importance of
pan-European political and media institutions;
• Culturalist approach looks at nationally
interlocking ‘national’ public spheres;
• But is there much evidence of a sense of ‘we
Europeans’ in the different European public
• Why choose Berlusconi? Seemed to be a
figure that united non-Italian European elite in
• ‘Gaffe’ prone;
• How is the conflict framed? Left v Right?
Nation v Nation?
What we found?
• Discourse intensity much higher in Germany and Italy;
• Seen in national terms by both left and right in each
• Newspapers in other countries see this as an opportunity to
use ethno-national stereotypes of both Germans and
• Insult to victims and survivors of the Shoah hardly
• Essentially national public spheres;
• Predominance of ethno-national stereotypes in analysis of
European problems – Eurocrisis;
• Rise of neo-populism.
‘We Europeans’ united against ‘the
Other’? Turkish accession
• Islam and Ottoman Empire used historically as a
way to define European, Christian identity;
• Identification of frames:
• Clash of Civilisations, Christian/ethno-nationalist
• Clash of civilisations, liberal version;
• Multiculturalist frame;
• Liberal individualist frame;
• Economic consequences.
What we found
• Intensity much higher in France, Germany, and
Turkey than in USA, UK, Slovenia;
• Why? Elite consensus in USA and UK? Distance?
Geopolitical reasons? Dominance of
• France – dominated by liberal version of Clash of
• Germany – ethno-nationalist version of Clash of
• Turkey – nationalist frames;
‘We Europeans’ united against ‘the
Other’? The USA
• Historical and contemporary reciprocal uses of
America and Europe to define identities;
• ‘Old’ and ‘new’ Europe and the invasion of
• Old – social democratic, anti-invasion;
• New – neo-liberal, pro-invasion;
• To what extent are these frames distributed
• Czech Republic, Germany, France, Slovenia,
UK, Switzerland, Slovakia;
• ‘quality’, finnce and regional/’tabloid’ papers;
• Using claims-making method and keyword
• Network analysis.
What we found
• New Europe – UK, Czech Republic, Slovakia;
• Old Europe – France, Germany, Slovenia;
• Prominence of national sources in each country;
• Leaders and followers – hierarchy of influence;
• Old Europe network and a new Europe network;
• Explanations: media as dependent and independent
• Models of capitalism and impact on public opinion;
• Resonates with reporting of Eurocrisis and responses to
Debating the European Constitution
• Centrality of national elites to debate in each country;
• Intensity of debate higher in France and UK: elite
dissensus (but over different issues);
• Germany relatively low intensity (because of elite
• Advocacy papers of left and right but they report the
same issues and the same people;
• Inclusiveness – dependent upon political system –
majoritarian systems tend to be more exclusive;
• Big differences between elite and popular papers –
class-based publics. Not true for other issues eg
• Uneven rise of neo-populism in EU;
• Are ‘traditional’ and ‘new’ media implicated in
• Complex causation with media reporting and
new media (possible) causal conditions (along
with others: unemployment, living standards,
immigration, electoral system, …)
• Method: Qualitative Comparative Analysis
doing longitudinal analysis.